Q&A: ‘Medicine has to come from the heart’

pregnant woman and nurse
Nurse providing antenatal check-up for a pregnant woman. Copyright: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment

Speed read

  • ‘Unconventional’ path led Kenyan doctor to medicine
  • Medicine challenging, but rewarding, says WHO global health awardee
  • Anger over maternal deaths led to new support service

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

As reports grew last year that women were dying of pregnancy related complications while Nairobi was under a COVID-19 curfew, Jemimah Kariuki took to social media to offer help. This simple act led to an avalanche of support, and the emergency support line and free transport service, Wheels for Life, was born.

Kariuki is a medical doctor, and a resident in obstetrics and gynaecology at the Kenyatta National Hospital. This year, she received the World Health Organization Director-General’s Award for Global Health. Wheels for Life has so far helped 10,000 women get medical support and arranged 2,000 taxi and ambulance trips. Kariuki hopes the service will continue long after the pandemic is over.

But, Kariuki tells SciDev.Net, she thought life was going to take her down a very different career path.

Dr. Jemimah Kariuki  Image Credit: Michael Kaloki

Could you tell me about your personal journey? How did you get into medicine?

I actually thought I was going to be a lawyer and when I was younger I really wanted to do politics because I had a really strong passion to change things that I was seeing. I had a black book that I would write: ‘If I was in this region I would do this and this and this…’. But when I was in high school, I remember my brother got an asthma attack and I was very helpless. Compounded with a lot of biology classes, I figured this would actually be a really good path. God works in mysterious ways. I had a small wound on my foot and my dad was doing something with some lawyers, which ended up with me looking at both of them and asking: ‘Is this something that I like? Is this other environment something that I feel welcome to?’. That is how I got into medicine. It is not something very conventional, but here we are.

What challenges did you face on your journey into medicine?

Medicine is something that you have to do from your heart. I have always considered medicine as something I would do to give to humanity and my life goal has always been, ‘I want to help people’. I figured that I would help more people in medicine than in any other field. It is my way of giving back to society, which means that you are doing a lot of reading, a lot of experiments with different things in the medical field. You push very long hours as a doctor. It is not an easy challenge, any doctor out there will let you know that, it is a gruelling field. But it has its rewards and anytime I see a pregnant mother walk out with a baby, the whole journey was worth it.

Tell me a little bit about Wheels for Life. How did Wheels for Life come about and what motivated you to start it?

Wheels for Life is something that I know came from God. I am very staunch as a believer and when the [COVID-19] pandemic hit, it found me on the corridors of one of the biggest referral hospitals in the country — that is the Kenyatta National Hospital, which is where the University of Nairobi registrars usually do their studies.

That month I was in charge of the maternal mortality case follow ups. I was in the labour ward quite a bit and what I realised is that we were seeing a drop of more than 60 per cent of the patients that we normally see. And the constant question in all the medics’ minds was: Where are the patients? Because pregnancy did not stop, so where are the patients? In that whole headspace is when I went to Twitter and I was like, ‘If you need any help just let me know and I will try and help’. So when I put that tweet up, I got over 40 calls the first day. The next day. The day afterwards.

I think it was on the fourth or fifth day I was called by a woman now stranded. Some cab drivers had reached out that they wanted to help. So, I remember calling one and he travelled a good 40 kilometers to get to that patient and take them to hospital. That was our first victory, because that lady got to hospital at 3am. When they got to the ward, within 30 minutes that baby was out. And it was such a miracle, because it was a big boy — it was 4.1 or 4.2 kilograms.

Wheels for Life started with a simple tweet and grew into something which has helped thousands of women. What advice would you give to other women wanting to make a difference in the field of global health?

I would tell women out there to just start. I feel that any area that makes you upset is your area of calling and I say that with so much confidence, it is because I got angry that women are dying that I was able to think about what can we do differently. I feel that [if] people would be able to respond to their area of anger and translate it to their calling, I think we can really move as a nation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.