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After three kidney transplants in 15 years, Lorna determined to make best of life

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Originally Published: July 4, 2010

It’s Thursday morning in uptown Nairobi. The cold weather seems to be out to make a point: do not leave the house without warm clothing. Most people have heeded the call and are wearing thick jackets and scarves. But some walk the streets on their own terms, wearing what they chose.

At around 10.15 a.m. Lorna Irungu walks into a city restaurant. Dressed in a white T-shirt, blue jeans, black shoes and brown sunglasses. Despite the greyness outside, her world is full of sunshine and, as she says, the best she can do is bask in its glory.

Worst person

“I’d love to tell you that I am always this bubbly, but that would be a lie. Sometimes I’m the worst person to be around,” the 35-year-old says as she lets out a chuckle, sits down then lightly scratches her short, reddish, dyed hair.

From looking at her, it would be hard to tell that she has been floored by illness on several occasions. And after each punch, she has dusted off.
Going by a doctor’s prognosis, her family should be huddled somewhere trying to figure out what flowers to buy, what kind of music to play, what kind of farewell message to write on yet another card and ultimately whom to invite to her 13th memorial service.

“That was not in the grand scheme of things,” she says. “I am still here.”

After years of aches and pains and searching for the correct diagnosis from one doctor to another, she was finally diagnosed with lupus, a disease that affects the immune system.

Final curtain

Since then, her life has not returned to the original script. And in 2007 she thought the final curtain was about to fall. She was ready to succumb to what seemed to be her fate: an early death due to kidney failure.

“I no longer had the will to fight. I was scarred physically and mentally. Frankly, I’d had enough of life and all it had to offer,” she says. And just like that she was willing to throw away more than a decade of battle. Her time, she thought to herself, had come.

It all started with an infection that she hoped could be dealt with easily. But, as the year drew to a close, the infection evolved into something more serious – tuberculosis of the spine – earning her a stint at Nairobi Hospital.

She had hit rock bottom twice before, and on each of those occasions, she had been bailed out with some level of success. But this time round it felt different.

“I saw the outstretched hands of family and friends willing to pull me back up and set me on my feet again. But I did not care,” she says. At that point, she was falling freely into a dark abyss, and nothing, it seemed, would hold her back.

After her college education, Lorna, or Kui as she is fondly called by friends and family, had her own master plan in which everything was planned down to a T.

“I was to get my masters degree and maybe move to the US and start a life there in a house with a picket fence in a nice suburb. I seemed unstoppable,” she says.

And for a while she was, first as an actress with the legendary James Falkland’s Phoenix Players at the Professional Centre. Her acting led to the beginning of a career in television.

But then her kidneys put her on a journey she says she would not wish anyone to join.

“Some levels of pain are not meant for everyone,” she says.

And it was not just physical pain. Mentally, she had been hurting. Bad.

She had to have a kidney transplant. By this time she had lost weight, her skin colour had changed, and she looked a pale shadow of what television audiences knew from her days at KTN when she arguably made up one half of Kenya’s most popular TV couple after years of pairing on air with Jimmi Gathu.

“Almost everyone had something to say about what they thought I was suffering from, and most of them were not courageous to step up and ask me to my face,” she says.

Eventually, family and close friends understood what she was going through and offered their support.

She had her first transplant in 1998 at Nairobi Hospital. The kidney was donated by her father. Finally, a breath of fresh air was blowing her way.

“He was not young any more, but he had a damn good kidney. He offered, we matched and I literally had a piece of him in me,” she says.

Life resumed normalcy for the next several years and she even managed to get a number of jobs from employers who she says believed in her ability to do the work. The transplant did not slow her down. After her procedure, she worked with Radio Africa and with the Tamarind group of restaurants as events manager at The Carnivore. This required tremendous energy and working crazy hours. She did all this while still taking post-transplant medication.

“And I repaid them greatly by giving them the best of my working years,” she says. “Plus, I had bills to pay.”

But her run of good luck and apparent good health was about to come to an end. Towards the end of 2000, the kidney she had received from her father became infected. There was only one solution: get another one.

Luckily, she was not short of organ donors. This time, her sister stepped in and offered one. Lorna had to accept it. She still had some fighting spirit left, and her hopes and ambitions had not yet slipped beyond reach.

“I was determined to make it work and make the new kidney last even longer than the one I had received from my dad,” she says, sipping a cup of cafe latte.

When she speaks about her bad times, her look appears so distant that an eavesdropper would think she is talking about someone else.

During one of her stints in hospital she lost her appetite.

“Each time anything reached my stomach, it came right back up. But my doctors encouraged me by assuring me that for the five seconds between the time of ingestion and when I threw up, my body retained some nutrients,” she says.

And so she just kept forcing food down.

In 2001, she went under the scalpel again. The surgery went well, and it seemed her body and the kidney were doing just fine. Then one of her worst fears came true. The post-surgery drugs were not working , and the domino effect began. The infection moved from her kidneys to her lungs then to her liver.

“My blood pressure went out of control; this also affected my heart,” she says.

The evidence that all would not be well between her and her sister’s kidney was overwhelming. In 2008, she once more faced a problem that had become all too familiar.
She has been in and out of hospital so many times she talks like a doctor, tossing out words like dialysate, crossmatching and glomerulonephritis.

She doesn’t just have a doctor; she sees a nephrologist. As she talks, it seems as though she has never quite left the operating room.

“I just wanted it to be over,” she says. “I was just tired. I was really, really tired of the fighting, of the struggling, of being sick. My body and my mind seemed to have given up.”

She did not believe she would win the battle this time, and it that state of mind, she spiralled into psychotic fits and endless bouts of depression.

But her family and friends understood that she was going through a rough patch and were determined not to let the dark times linger.

“At the third time of asking they came through again.” It was her brother’s turn. He offered one of his kidneys.

“They just couldn’t let me walk this road alone.”

But the guarantee of a donor was not the end of her tribulations. Another thing stood between her and another transplant: the cost.

Locally, the procedure was too expensive. So she began looking elsewhere, sending out emails with her medical history and making phone calls to hospitals in other countries. Doctors at Fortis Hospital in New Delhi, India, were the only ones who responded to her somewhat complicated case.

Dr Vijay Kher, the hospital’s director of nephrology, talked to Lorna by phone and made travel arrangements for her.

But she could not leave as quickly as she had wanted. Her health was failing again. Fast.

Her vertebrae collapsed. Her heart was in no condition for a flight to India. Her blood pressure was off the charts, and her whole being was not in the right place. She drifted into a coma on December 27, 2007.

As she lay in her hospital bed comatose, the rest of the country went up in flames over the bitterly disputed results of the presidential election. To an observer, she might have seemed lucky in a way not to witness the killings that went on.

But, in her own way, she took it all in, a visitor at a time.

Bits and pieces

“In its own little way, my brain picked bits and pieces of almost every conversation that was going on around me. From the facts to the rumours. In that state, I couldn’t tell one from the other,” she says.

She emerged from the coma on January 27, 2008. The pre-coma depression plus the conversations on the post-election violence that went on around her were the perfect trigger for some of her psychotic episodes that were characterised by nightmares and hallucinations and a removal from reality.

Two weeks after regaining consciousness, a semblance of normalcy was restored in her life and she finally made it to New Delhi accompanied by her sister and boyfriend.

Again there was a catch.

“This was a new territory, even for the doctors. One of my surgeons had performed more than 400 transplants but had never seen a triple recipient. They made me understand the dangers involved,” Lorna says.

She went in for the first surgery to remove one of her four kidneys to create room for the third transplant.

The second surgery, the transplant operation, lasted five hours and went well. She says the doctors thought it unnecessary to remove the three other kidneys because they were not causing harm and they didn’t want to subject her to more surgery.

“This is normal procedure. Of the four kidneys, only one functions well. The rest are only removed to create more space or in case of infections,” Dr Kher told news channel CNN after the transplant.

And the extra kidneys seem to have given her a new lease of life. With her legendary fighting spirit, Lorna is determined to live life as best she can.

“I blame no one for the life I have had. All I can do is make lemonade from it,” she says.

Broken dreams

The easier option was to think of her life as a boulevard of broken dreams and unfulfilled promises. But she looks at all that has happened as a blessing in disguise.

“It’s been 15 years, and I am still here. There must be a reason for that,” she says.

There was a time she was angry at the world, angry at God for making her go through all this. But she says she made peace with both herself and her maker.

“If I were to bump into Him in the streets, I’d extend my hand and tell him that for a guy his age, he sure does have a sense of humour,” she says. “And I know He is looking out for me.”

For now, she is still trying to figure out what her ideal career is. When she does, she says, “I will run with it like no one’s business.”

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