Journey of endurance: My path to leadership in medicine” – By Dr. Nicholas Okumu

Ever since I first read Nelson Mandela’s words, “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living,” they have served as a guiding beacon in my life.

My journey from a determined young boy to an accomplished orthopaedic surgeon and head of the Department of Orthopaedics at Kenyatta National Hospital is a testament to these words.

I now serve as the CEO of a healthcare provider that aspires to be a leader in the provision of both healthcare technology and the more traditional healthcare services.

As a country, Kenya has a long way to go in achieving the goal of providing healthcare for all despite the many advances we have made over the years. It is my hope that we can play a small part in achieving this noble aim.

The impact of loss and the strength of resilience

The loss of my father when I was 12 was a pivotal moment in my life, shaping my future in ways I could not imagine. My mother, a teacher, took on the responsibility of raising me and my siblings. Her sacrifices to help us succeed on that meager salary laid the foundation of my resilience and determination.

She may not be a Mandela but she also always said that if you set out to do something, there was no point doing it badly or only reaching halfway.

Mentorship, scholarships, and the journey to medicine

During my high school years, I was fortunate to encounter Samwel Maneno, the principal at Lenana School. Maneno’s leadership style, based on honesty and forthrightness, left a lasting impression on me. He always told it the way he saw it, never hiding behind fancy words.

People who know me could say the same of me – a trait I have carried forward in my professional life, valuing transparency and directness in my interactions and decision-making. It also does not hurt that the school motto was ‘Nihil Praetor Optimum’, which translates in English as ‘Nothing but the best’.

I was fortunate to receive a scholarship from the Chandaria Foundation, which was instrumental in my academic journey, especially allowing me to complete my Form five and six at Oshwal High School. Oshwal was important, we were only three black students at the school and I learnt that confidence and becoming part of a team does not always mean that you have to come from the same background.

Post-high school, my aspirations to pursue medicine led me to Tanzania and the University of Dar-es-Salaam. There, I experienced a different culture, which taught me the value of patience and the importance of one of Steven Covey’s habits for success: ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’.

This principle has guided me in my approach to both medicine and leadership, emphasizing the need for empathy and clear communication. There also, just as before, my commitment to my studies was further supported by a scholarship from Reuters for the first two years of my studies.

The final piece of my educational journey fell into place with a government scholarship, allowing me to complete my final year of medical studies. Having a degree and a job does not always guarantee financial freedom, in the final year of my master’s programme at the University of Nairobi, I worked three jobs to afford my fees, exemplifying my commitment to my medical aspirations.

Leading the Department of Orthopaedics, spearheading transformations

Joining Kenyatta National Hospital, I worked for several years, honing my skills and understanding the intricacies of healthcare delivery. My dedication eventually led to my appointment as the head of the Department of Orthopaedics. In this role, I spearheaded significant transformations, introducing sub-specialty units, including an orthopaedic oncology unit which I personally lead.

We established a limb salvage service, a multi-disciplinary team, and effectively reduced waiting times for patients with musculoskeletal sarcomas. Another unit focused on complex pelvic fractures, significantly improving patient care in this area. We also integrated sports medicine into the hospital’s strategic plan, identifying it as one of the future Centres of Excellence.

Collaboration and the pursuit of excellence

The challenge with making the units successful has always been balancing the resources available to achieve the tasks we set for ourselves and collaborating effectively with other parts of the hospital. We recognize that we do not operate in isolation, and effective collaboration is essential for delivering exceptional patient care.

Enhancing postgraduate training and mentoring the next generation

Our focus is now shifting towards enhancing postgraduate training, aiming to develop sub-specialists. We are now on the brink of launching spine surgery fellowships in collaboration with the University of Nairobi, a milestone that marks the growth and development of our department. I must thank my colleagues from the University of Nairobi with whom we have worked together to make the post-graduate programmes more effective.

Reflecting on my journey

I see a blend of struggle, hard work and achievement. From a young boy inspired by his mother’s strength, a student uplifted by scholarships, to a doctor leading change in a major hospital, my story is one of never settling for less, always striving for the potential I knew I had.

As I stand at this juncture, I am excited about the future and the next chapter of my journey. I can confidently say that I leave the department better than I found it.

The horizon is filled with new challenges and opportunities for growth. My focus will be on further advancing medical care and education, exploring new frontiers in orthopaedic surgery, and mentoring the next generation of medical professionals.

I am committed to continuing my pursuit of excellence, guided by the belief that there is always a higher peak to strive for in both personal and professional life, keeping Mandela’s wisdom close to my heart.

The articles that I will be sharing are a reflection of my past experiences and hopefully will help us to share the many life lessons that I have picked up along the way, I welcome you to share a few pieces of my life story.

They are also an eye-opener into the life of a doctor and the many challenges that we face daily, it also my hope that it will put a human face to the many healthcare professionals you interact with and help you to understand them a little bit better.

Adapted from, The Star Newspaper:

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