International News

More Than a Place to Die: Sisters Offer Hospice Care to Patients in Kenya

By Lourine Oluoch

THIGIO, Kenya (CNS) — Michael Kamau Mathini is convinced that his father lived as long as he did because of the quality of care he received at Our Lady Hospice-Thigio, run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul.

Sisters Mary Mukui and Deborah Mallott of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul pose outside Our Lady’s Hospice-Thigio in Thigio, Kenya. The Daughters of Charity opened the hospice in 2010, and it has provided palliative care to more than 500 patients. (Photo: CNS/Lourine Oluoch, Global Sisters Report)

Joffrey Mathini Kamau died in March 2021 at age 106, his son said, having entered the small hospice in 2014.

“My father was at the hospice for a long time,” Kamau told Global Sisters Report. “He would not have lived as long as he did. The sisters do really good work. Apart from having prostate cancer, he was also blind. He had two wives, but they were not able to care for him.”

Terminally ill patients in this quiet farming village in Kiambu County, 24 miles outside Nairobi, are treated at the nine-bed hospice center established by the sisters in 2010.

When the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul arrived in Kenya in 2002, the sisters would walk through the neighborhoods, visiting those who were sick, said Sister Deborah Mallott, the administrator of the congregation’s projects in Thigio.

“They found more and more patients who were suffering from serious, sometimes terminal illness that didn’t have anywhere to go at the time,” she said. “In those days there were many, many houses without electricity, without running water. There were people living in one-room houses, and it was very hard to care for somebody with HIV or cancer in that kind of a circumstance. That is why the sisters started thinking about doing hospice care in this area.”

The hospice, on a slight hill between a church and the Holy Cross Medical Clinic, has provided palliative care to more than 500 terminally ill patients. It is one of only 70 facilities in Kenya that offer palliative care.

Most of the patients are referred to the hospice from nearby hospitals, while others choose the facility on recommendation of friends and family.

“We admit clients with cancer in stages 3 and 4 and those with HIV/AIDS in the last stages,” said Sister Mary Mukui, a Daughter of Charity who is also the manager of Our Lady’s Hospice and Holy Cross dispensary. The patients often are aware of their conditions, she told Global Sisters Report.

“They know it’s palliative care which is needed, and most of them are already in good terms with that and have somehow accepted what is coming,” she said. “We journey with the family.”

Sister Eileen O’Callaghan, a nurse and founding manager of Our Lady’s Hospice, opted to spend the last month of her life at the very hospice she had helped establish and run for nine years. When she was diagnosed with cancer in its terminal stages, Sister O’Callaghan, originally from Ireland, decided to stay in Kenya.

“It was her choice to come here because she knew the care is good,” said Elizabeth Wanjiku, a hospice nurse who has worked at the hospice since its founding. “It was hard to see one of us fading away and finally going to the grave, but we gave her the best that we could.” Sister O’Callaghan died Sept. 30, 2019.

In addition to the hospice, the six sisters of Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul in Thigio run the Holy Cross Medical Clinic and a physiotherapy unit, which provide general health care to the community. Other projects include a program for special needs children and youth, a social lunch program for the elderly, a women’s development program, a library of more than 2,000 books and a sports program for both girls and boys.

The hospice works closely with the patient’s doctor to know the details of the person’s illness. The doctor’s prescriptions are followed and, if the center doesn’t have the recommended medication, the family is asked to try to buy it and bring it to the hospice.

The idea of hospice care has gained greater acceptance among people in the area, said Sister Mukui.

“Some days back they were really afraid of hospice, thinking it’s an area where people just come to die, but over some time they have realized it is not only for dying, but it’s a place where patients are taken care of and they can live for long,” she told Global Sisters Report.

“Our best advertisement is not the media, but the people who have been our clients,” said Sister Mallott. “A family will come and request that their patient be admitted and they’ll say, ‘So-and-so said their mother died here, and they told us about this place.'”

The coronavirus pandemic initially affected the hospice significantly. Not only did it push up the cost of caring for the patients, but the hospice experienced a drop in the number of patients. That seems to have eased in recent months.

Sister Mallott said she wishes the hospice could receive patients sooner.

“Families try their best at curing their patient, certainly, but sometimes they try too long, and the patient goes down too far. If they could bring them earlier, then they could have a better quality of life for longer,” she said.

To ensure the hospice keeps running, the nuns work with global and local partners, including U.S.-based Hospice at Home Caring Circle and Misean Cara in Ireland; both help raise funds for the facility. They also work with a local group that includes members who have been treated at the hospice.

Oluoch is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.