Chemtai can only dream about a good night's rest as she has to sleep with her legs elevated. And while her classmates are busy studying, she is thinking about checking into hospital. This has been her routine for the last five years, writes Carol Natukunda
It is January 2011. Daphine Murket slips into the corner of the hospital ward and settles quietly next to her daughter. The girl’s breathing is rapid and jagged. She has just had an operation on her legs which are almost twice thier normal size. She wriggles in pain for hours, before slowly drifting off into sleep.
One year later, Murket, a single mother of three, narrates how much pain her daughter, Faith Chemutai, has had to endure. We find Chemutai dressed in trendy greyish leggings as any teenager would. As she gets up to change into a skirt, she has difficulty lifting her legs to make the next step.
In 2008, when Chemutai was in P6 at Kampala Parents School, her legs would occasionally swell. But somehow, no one took it serious. By P7, the situation was worse. Her shoes would not fit and she was wearing slippers to school. Some children laughed at her. But as time went by, they realised it was not her fault. Others asked her so many questions she could not answer, such as: “Do you pray to God?”
“Of course,” she would tell them with a forced smile. She believed her legs would heal soon — that was her bedtime prayer — so that she would wear her shoes to school, but they kept on swelling. That was the beginning of endless journeys in and out of hospital.
No change after operation
Today, a year after the operation in 2011, Chemutai’s legs continue to swell each passing day. The surgery that was done at Mulago Hospital was supposed to rectify her problem, but the legs started swelling again even before she could completely heal from the surgical wounds. In fact, if it were not for the scars at the back of her knees, you would not know she underwent surgery.
It turned out later that Mulago Hospital did not actually have the facilities to deal with her condition. When her legs started swelling again following the operation, Chemutai was rushed back to Mulago, but nothing could be done.
“Earlier this year, some visiting Indian surgeons at Mulago Hospital studied her case and said the condition was treatable, but only in a hospital abroad. Chemutai has been referred to Fortes Hospital in India, to undergo an operation at the cost of $21,000 (sh52.5m).
“I do not know where I am going to get this money. I am a widow, I do not have a job and I have to pay school fees for my children. I have been depending on a rental house my children’s father (Solomon Chemoiko) left behind. But I am now stuck,” Murket says.
Does she feel angry that her daughter was perhaps “cut” for nothing in an earlier operation? Murket does not want to apportion blame. “All I pray for is to raise money for my daughter’s treatment, so she can study without a problem. We are on our knees for God to give us a miracle,” she says.
In her quest for a miracle, Murket has lost count of the number of hospitals she has been to since 2008. She estimates she could have spent over sh30m on her daughter’s treatment, including welfare and transport costs.
“At first, we thought it was elephantiasis, but it was ruled out. Every doctor has suspected her organs could be damaged. But they have checked everything, the heart, the liver and kidneys and they are all okay,” says Murket.
“We have been to Mengo, Nsambya, Ebenezer, LMK, St. Catherine and almost every modern hospital, but nothing has been found. We even tried herbal clinics, but nothing helps,” she says.
In 2010, Chemutai underwent a venogram test at Mengo Hospital to check her veins using X-ray at sh150,000 per leg.
The tests showed that Chemutai had a varicose vein problem — her veins had become enlarged and twisted, therefore inhibiting normal blood circulation, causing the legs to enlarge even more. They took those results to Mulago Hospital and the doctors recommended surgery.
Dr. Tom Mwambu, a consultant cardiovascular surgeon, coordinated the team that operated on Chemutai. By this time, Chemutai was in her third term of s1 and she remembers leaving three weeks earlier than the rest to prepare for her operation. She was discharged in January 2011. The operation cost sh3.5m.
Chemutai is now 15 years old and in S3 at Mt. St Mary’s Namagunga, when she should be preparing for next year’s O’level exams. Instead, she finds herself contemplating her next surgery. Is she scared? If the question is obvious, the answer is not. She smiles and leans back, utterly composed. There is only an occasional flicker of rage in her eyes.
“It is all strange and painful, but what can I do?” she asks. “You want to do something or walk fast, but you cannot. There is a doctor who even recommended that I stop eating meat and milk. I went on a diet of greens for a long time, but it did not work.”
School is an on-and-off affair for her. “I am the kind of person who would not want to miss school. Now, I am forced to report weeks late, or leave halfway through the term for medical checkup or hospital admission. I have to cope by copying notes from friends,” she says.
Chemutai also remembers the day someone accidentally bumped into her shortly after the operation; re-injuring her wound, and she had to miss school for almost half the term. Despite all this, she has not repeated a class despite these disruptions.
“She is cheerful and normally performs above average,” says one of her teachers at Namagunga.
Chemutai is grateful that the school management and students understand her predicament. Many times when she is in unbearable pain, everyone gladly gives a helping hand like fetching water and the administration also allows her time off for medical checkup.
At their home in Naalya, Chemutai is the darling big sister to her siblings Elijah and Laura. She cooks for them and is always there to help out with homework and laundry. She dreams of becoming a doctor one day.
“For five years now, I sleep with my legs elevated. I do not know what it is like to walk and run about normally anymore. This is why I must be a doctor to help other helpless people,” she says.
What are varicose veins?
Dr. Samuel Ewou, a private physician with Family Health Care Clinic in Wandegeya, explains that varicose veins are common in the legs, but they occur anywhere in the body.
“Veins are blood vessels that return deoxygenated blood from the outer parts of the body back to the heart and lungs. When veins become abnormally thick, full of twists and turns, or enlarged, they are called varicose veins,” Ewou explains.
Many theories exist for why they occur, but the consensus is that damaged small vessels within the veins are the cause. It is unclear what causes the small vessels to work less efficiently.
Ewou suspects Chemutai might have been born with abnormalities of the veins. “The result is that as you grow older, it starts to show.
When a person with poorly functioning valves stands up, the blood flow reverses and flows down, when it should be flowing up, towards the heart,” he explains. Sometimes, when the muscles surrounding the deep veins contract, there is a build-up of pressure.”
Many factors can aggravate the varicose veins. Among them is pregnancy, which is associated with an increase in blood volume. Other risk factors include prolonged standing, obesity, prior surgery in the leg, advanced age and a general lack of exercise. Surgery is usually reserved for people who either do not get relief from the home care remedies like exercise or containing their weight, or elevating legs.
“The surgery may involve stripping the main vein to rectify the problem,” Dr. Ewou explains, adding that recurrence of varicose veins, like for Chemutai, may be due to failure to treat the smaller vessels inside the main vein.
Is prevention possible?
While we cannot change our genes or the ailments we were born with, experts recommend that we should keep weight under control, exercise, eat a healthy diet high in fibre and try to stick to loose comfortable shoes as much as possible.
Ewou says if an individual is genetically destined to develop varicose veins, they may appear despite all the best efforts.
You can help Chemutai realise her dream by contributing to the cost of her operation in India. She can be reached on
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