Zeddy Komen is currently the nurse in-charge of the Infectious Diseases Unit at Kenyatta National Hospital. Photo: Courtesy
Zeddy Chepchirchir Komen, an alumna of the Aga Khan University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery (AKU-SONAM), has received state recognition for her efforts in helping effectively handle and contain the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya.
Komen, who graduated in 2012 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, was among 68 Kenyans who received the Presidential Order of Service (Uzalendo Award) on June 1, 2020. The award celebrates Kenyans who have demonstrated exceptional service in various sectors.
In 2015, Komen was one of the nurses who volunteered to help in the response against Ebola in Liberia and went on to receive two gold medals: one from the African Union and another from former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. During her voluntary service, she received training on infection prevention and control from the World Health Organization.
We spoke to Komen who is currently the nurse in-charge of the Infectious Diseases Unit (IDU) at Kenyatta National Hospital about her experience on the frontlines of COVID-19, her previous experience and the new state recognition.
When did you decide you were going to be a nurse?
When growing up, my father once told me that I look like a nurse and I haven’t looked back ever since. I started my nursing profession at Park Road Nursing Home before moving on to the maternity ward at Guru Nanak Hospital, taking care of mothers and their babies. I worked at the paediatrics department at Kenyatta National Hospital before I moved to the Infectious Disease Unit. I am passionate about taking care of children, caring and supporting those who cannot support themselves. That is why I chose to become a nurse.
You’ve been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, tell us about your experience so far.
When the first case of COVID-19 was announced in the country, I knew very well I would end up working at the Corona Treatment Centre. My preparation in dealing with the pandemic dates back to 2015, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa where I was among the 170 medical health workers who volunteered to go and support in the response against the virus. I went to Monrovia, Liberia, which was an unforgettable experience. Ebola is more infectious than COVID-19 and its mortality rates were over 90 per cent at the time. Many hospitals had closed down after losing their workforce. Most of us who went to West Africa went against the advice of our loved ones but luckily, all of us came back home. I believe this was enough preparation to deal with COVID-19.
What challenges have you faced in the fight against the pandemic?
I remember when we encountered our first COVID-19 death all of us were anxious to a point where no one wanted to touch the patient’s phone to call the next of kin. We were all scared of getting infected. Each time I get home from work I worry about carrying any infections and infecting my family. There were times when I experienced flu-like symptoms and other COVID-related symptoms, but I received counselling and tests, and realised that the symptoms were due to my anxiety. I remember this time when we were discharging a patient and she hugged me joyfully, our team was almost put into quarantine. Fortunately, all the tests turned out negative.
Safety is something I consider and we are always on the look for decontamination. I want to ensure others are always safe.
Having experienced stigma from my colleagues who are not working in the Infectious Diseases Unit, I believe that nurses fighting against the pandemic globally are dealing with stigma. Some stay away from us fear and will avoid interactions when we meet at work. At home, my neighbours close their doors when they hear or see me approaching. Some even warned their children not to play with my children on the assumption that they may be infected.
How do you deal with the challenges?
My life has changed a lot since the emergence of the virus and I have had to readjust in several ways. I’ve learned to self-isolate while at home, I use separate utensils and clean them well, I sanitise the washrooms after use to ensure my family’s safety and avoid interacting with many people to reduce the potential for infecting others. I lost my aunt in March, but l couldn’t attend her burial due to fear of infection. When the anxiety gets too much, I make use of the counselling services provided and encourage patients and colleagues to do the same.
Teamwork also helps a lot. I remember once when we had a suicidal and mentally ill patient. We had to restrain him and give treatment without contaminating ourselves. It was a very difficult but memorable experience because the security, doctors and support staff worked together to stabilise the patient and restore order to the situation. Teamwork has been very important.
How do you feel about receiving the Head of State Commendation?
I am humbled and happy to receive this award from the President. Nurses and other frontliners have really worked hard during this pandemic, and I am happy that the president recognised our efforts.
You are an alumna of SONAM, how did the programme prepare you?
My experience at SONAM transformed my approach to issues and improved my problem-solving skills. Before joining AKU, I was shy and naïve but the programme helped me express myself better and become bold. No human is limited. I’m still growing and I wish to further my studies and continue to serve the society better.