I, Oketch.

Written by Cabral Opiyo

Oketch is possibly the most jovial person I’ve ever met, always laughing, making jokes, and smiling, the hilarity always bubbling to the surface every time he speaks. Yet his life hasn’t always been a straightforward affair, he has witnessed a lot of gut-wrenching things in his short time as a caregiver, forfeited a few relationships, and basically let go of any modicum of a social life. Oketch took me on the ups and downs of his life as a caregiver and so far he has had to do a lot of growing up in a few months.

Prior to October 2020, Oketch had no practical caregiving experience and he was just a happy-go-lucky youth going about the business of experiencing life. On his travails for work that would take him far and wide, Oketch stayed at the house of an elderly friend of the family, Owen. It hadn’t even been his idea to stay there, he was passing by Nairobi and when Owen heard that Oketch was in town, he immediately insisted that the young man stays with him, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. That was in February of 2020 and from then on the seed was planted and he didn’t know it then, but he had just started paving his path to a life of caregiving.

In October of that same year, their paths would cross again as Oketch’s father fell ill and was admitted to Memorial Hospital, Nairobi for a week, and Oketch once again needed somewhere to stay while he visited his father. Of course, immediately Owen heard of his predicament, he enthusiastically offered the young man accommodation once again. Oketch would commute from Owen’s house to go to the hospital to visit his father and when he was free he would help around any duties that needed attending in the house and a bond soon formed with Owen that would lead to Oketch making a hugely monumental decision later on.

When it was time for Oketch to leave Nairobi because his dad was feeling better, his dad gave him a stack of documents including x-rays and MRI’s to take back home on his behalf. Oketch took them back to Owen’s house and the lady doing the cleaning mixed both Owen’s documents with Oketch’s dad’s documents because they looked similar and when Oketch was packing he packed everything and left for home not understanding the significance of the mix-up until much later.

Unbeknownst to Oketch, Owen was ill, he had cancer and had been living with it for some time now. About the time Oketch left, Owen’s condition worsened and in hospital, the doctors wanted to see his previous MRI’s and x-rays. When he looked for them of course he didn’t find them because Oketch had carried them home unknowingly and they were hundreds of kilometers away with an oblivious Oketch. Owen called all his family members and they all denied knowledge of the whereabouts of the documents until he hit the jackpot when he asked Oketch whether he had them.

In a twist of fate, Oketch was traveling to Thika and he agreed to immediately travel to Nairobi to deliver the documents to a grateful Owen. When Oketch arrived, he found his friend in a bad way and the nephew that Owen stayed with didn’t help matters because of how unreliable he was, he would disappear for days on end without a word to the ailing Owen and Owen was tired of his erratic behavior so he asked Oketch to move in to help with his care.

Owen had always been kind to Oketch and his family, opening up his home severally to the young man when he traveled for various reasons so Oketch did not see the harm in helping him out so he accepted the assignment knowing he had no prior experience taking care of an ill patient. The truant nephew was kicked out immediately and Oketch moved in immediately and that’s the unlikely story of how he became a caregiver.

Owen’s family did not live with him, he was separated from his wife who worked in a different town hundreds of kilometers away and his daughter had her own family in a different part of the city, even though she visited twice a month. So the onus to take care of the ailing man was all on Oketch and he took up the burden with his usual good cheer even though at the back of his mind he was filled with fear at not knowing what to do.

Owen’s condition was serious and he barely ever slept, walking around the house or reading the whole night because of the pain and discomfort. He barely ever ate either and when he did he was almost always vomiting the little he could stomach. He became strikingly thin even though his stomach was distended badly, he also had severe constipation and it was evident that he was a sick man, Oketch took all of these in stride and tried to help settle the agitated man as much as he could.

Oketch would help clean Owen whenever he was too weak to clean himself and he admits that at first, it wasn’t an easy task because no matter how bad it was he couldn’t show any disgust at the task, he couldn’t hurt the kindly, old man’s feelings that way so he stuck to his task and performed admirably.

“I took care of him even the intimate stuff as if he were my sibling or immediate family. I was scared and I didn’t even imagine that I would be doing what I was doing but I took it in stride,” says the pensive Oketch.

At times it got very bad especially around February of 2021 when Owen contracted a serious flu which Oketch speculates was actually covid-19. Owen was so weak he couldn’t get up by himself and for a moment it looked bad. It culminated in him falling off his bed one night as he tried to get up and a thoroughly shaken Oketch helped him back into bed and tried to call a doctor only for the headstrong Owen to refuse. Oketch was caught in a tough spot because he did not want to disrespect the old man but his condition was serious and he had to act, a dilemma many caregivers have faced on whether to act contrary to their patient’s wishes even though it would be good for them.

Finally, a compromise was reached and Owen allowed him to call his wife and inform her of his condition. Owen can be stubborn when it comes to going to the hospital and bothering others and most times chooses to tough it out, a trait that both scares and inspires admiration in Oketch.

Since he started being a caregiver, Oketch has had no social life and his hugely active friendship circle has dwindled because he no longer has the time to see them. Even when he has time, Owen has expressed reservations about him meeting friends regularly especially during the height of the pandemic because as a person at risk, it would be deadly for him if he had contracted covid-19. So Oketch just texts and calls his friends which is not the same and can be a bit lonely.

Oketch’s schedule is full from when he wakes up at half-past six in the morning and if there is no doctor’s appointment scheduled, he reads until he has to prepare breakfast which he partakes with Owen. Afterward, he cleans up the house, does laundry, and any other miscellaneous household duties before preparing lunch and going on an afternoon walk. In between this, he has a timely alarm to make sure that Owen takes his various medicines at the correct times.

Over time, Oketch has found ways to unwind away from the vagaries of caregiving, he realized that he needed to take care of himself by doing things he enjoys otherwise he would be too overwhelmed. He almost always reads, listens to music, and goes to the rooftop to sing and play the guitar his friend had let him borrow, an activity he describes as jamming.

Oketch is not a veteran caregiver but he has learned several lessons during his time as one: he has learned that caregiving is more than just performing duties, it is mostly about being present and making instant sacrifices for the person you’re taking care of without complaining.

Oketch has learned to appreciate life as it is, especially if you’re not unwell having lived with someone who has to live with a condition that engulfs their whole life, he is more grateful for good health more than ever. Additionally, he has purposed to work on his relationships because when one is unwell, it’s mostly the only family who remain, and having savings is a good idea because health insurance is mostly always inadequate in this country.

He has also learned about himself, he has learned that he is a patient and gracious man based on how he has reacted to different trying situations during his time as a caregiver.

The easy-going Oketch is still relatively new to the calling of caregiving but there is no timeline for the events one endures and witnesses as one and he has seen his fair share in his young career. It hasn’t changed who he is, he’s just a bit wiser and he’s still smiling.

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