Betty Gikonyo – Top cardiologist with a heart for needy children

Hailed as one of the foremost medical practitioners of our time, Betty Gikonyo’s story is a picture of determination and courage. She teamed up with colleagues to perform the first open-heart surgery in Kenya, creating hope for thousands of children, whose chances of survival were previously slim. Betty Gikonyo and her husband are the brains behind the Karen Hospital, and the Heart-to-Heart Foundation that has helped thousands of underprivileged children access life-saving heart surgeries they could otherwise not afford. The Foundation is associated with the successful Mater Heart Run and the Karen Hospital Heart Run. Her brother’s encouragement and praise for her performance in high school, gave her the confidence to study medicine. Married while they were still students, Gikonyo and her husband mentored each other over the years as they raised a family and built their careers. She finds her husband’s intellectual, emotional and spiritual support invaluable. She adds, “We mentored each other and grew together in medicine.” Listen to your inner voice. Identify your passion. That passion will be an unstoppable driving force, no matter the obstacles. As a young family, they faced serious financial struggles. Their university stipend, nicknamed ‘boom’, was just enough to cover housing and basic needs. However, when the
university closed for several months in 1975, things got worse. Caring for an infant and studying took up all of Gikonyo’s time. Her husband had to juggle studying and working part-time to cater for the family.

Gikonyo found time between working and caring her family to complete a master’s degree. But just before she finished, she faced an unexpected setback. After two years of compiling a thesis on childhood diarrheal diseases, the work was rejected because she had not consulted the university before working with an independent Dutch laboratory for specialised analysis. She took this in her stride. With just three months of study left, Gikonyo did a retrospective\ study of medical records of children with heart disease at the Kenyatta National Hospital. She passed and graduated as a paediatrician. This eleventh-hour switch proved to be one of the toughest periods in Gikonyo’s career. After finishing the degree, Gikonyo put her career on hold for a while to give her husband a
chance to enrol for a postgraduate degree programme in cardiology in the US. Still, she longed to study paediatric neonatology. “I knew I needed to develop my career. I knew that opportunities were out there and I knew I was going to get them.” A chance encounter led to an interview. Her master’s thesis on heart diseases in children won her a fellowship that enabled her to study paediatric cardiology at the University of Minnesota. What had been a difficult to write last-minute thesis proved to be a blessing in disguise.

When their stint at university in the US was over, the couple confounded their peers by shunning the allure of the American dream to return home with their young children. They wanted to use their training to provide first-world medical care to their fellow Kenyans. Gikonyo and her husband set up a cardiology clinic while working at a Nairobi hospital. Despite the demanding work routine, she made sure she gave her family life priority. A beneficiary of maternal closeness, Gikonyo knew that a mother’s physical presence was indispensable. “Quality time with children is a fallacy,” says Gikonyo, who instead prioritises quantity time. “There’s no profession that doesn’t allow one to be with their children. It’s mandatory to schedule the time. From when my children were babies, I had to be there for them.” Gikonyo recalls how her husband took over her shifts whenever necessary and donated his annual leave to her so she could be present for their children’s milestones from nursery school to university.

“If you juggle career and family life — both will suffer for a while, but every family must plan daily and set aside time they can spend together.” She emphasises on the importance of “being present,” especially to young couples. Her passion for medicine and desire to save lives, shared by her husband, stemmed from their heartbreak whenever they saw poor families with desperately sick children needing life- saving surgery. The couple would appeal to friends in Minnesota, and with the help of well- wishers, they would accompany children overseas for treatment. In 1993, the cardiologists founded the not-for-profit Heart-to-Heart Foundation to raise money so that the heart surgeries for underprivileged children’s could be provided more sustainably. Confident of Kenyan medical practitioners’ skills, they procured equipment to perform operations locally. In October the same year, Gikonyo teamed up with eminent colleagues to perform the first] open-heart surgery in Kenya. Twenty years and many marathons, fundraising gala dinners and surgeries later, Gikonyo delights in being part of a success story. “It’s good to take credit for pioneering something,” she says, but credits thousands of benefactors for the foundation’s success.

It is this human goodness that spurred on the couple to explore the feasibility of the Karen Hospital, with no funds and no previous business or administrative experience to lean on. Despite the challenges that came this audacious venture, they put their minds to it and did not turn back. “I really believe in myself. I believe that when I take up a responsibility, I can do it.” When setting up the hospital, she was juggling with starting the University of Nairobi Alumni Association where she was the chair for 10 years within which she oversaw the establishment of chapters of different disciplines. This allowed for the graduates in different disciplines to interact more with each other and mentor the students in those fields. She also chaired the Nairobi Health Management Board for seven years between 2004 and 2011 and served as deputy chair of the University of Nairobi Council for seven years.

She credits her ignorance of the magnitude of the Karen Hospital project for its success. “If you start something, God does not allow you to see the entirety, because it’s so big!” If they had contemplated the prospects of securing a huge loan without any business background, they would have been too overwhelmed to begin. The challenge of repaying the loans, paying salaries, buying medical equipment and supplies was awesome, yet Gikonyo believed the project would succeed. The paediatric cardiologist embarked on and completed a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree while overseeing the hospital administration. Commitment to proactive lifelong learning is her secret to success. More than a decade later, Gikonyo is proud that Karen Hospital has created jobs for over 400 Kenyans, received ISO certification and repaid the Ksh700 million loan. In 2013, the couple opened a school of nursing as the first phase of Karen Hospital’s accredited training facility. Gikonyo intends to play an active role in training Kenya’s next generation of medical practitioners at university level. She sees this as part of the solution to the problem of health care in Kenya, and a practical answer to Kenya’s brain drain, which has seen thousands of nurses emigrate overseas.

She views the emigration of nurses as a testament to Kenya’s quality professionals. “Nobody complains when our coffee goes to UK,” she says. “Since we are exporting highly qualified professionals to first world countries, we should increase our training capacity. Those workers are developing our country as they work overseas.” The nursing school project does not scare the Gikonyos. “Fear can immobilise you and sap all your energy. I’m never afraid,” says Gikonyo. On the contrary, “treating, teaching an interacting with patients, their relatives, and society at large, makes me feel very fulfilled and gratified.” The journey continues: “Being a doctor was just the foundation. I haven’t reached my destination, but I’m somewhere close.” The top cardiologist believes that no profession is superior. However, she has advice for those grappling with career choice: “Listen to your inner voice. Identify your passion. That passion will be an unstoppable driving force, no matter the obstacles.”


Words of Wisdom

• “You can do good while still doing business. It is not one or the other.”
• “Businesses that flourish do so because of loans. Just be very prudent in the way you manage repayment.”
• “Friendships are like a car and must be serviced regularly. I’ve kept in touch with my friends since high school and we maintain close friendships from our days in the University of Nairobi and the University of Minnesota.”
• “The reason there is a word success is because there is an opposite of it, so we should expect failure and mitigate it.”

Gikonyo is a far cry from her humble beginnings in Kiamabara Village in Nyeri County. She has travelled the world and received honours, including the Giants Federation of Kenya Award for dedication in Medicine and Cardiology. She has also received two presidential awards — the Silver Star of Kenya (SS) in 1998 and the Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS) in 2008.

In 2016, Gikonyo launched her compelling and aptly titled autobiography, The Girl Who Dared to Dream. The inspiring autobiography gives deeper insight on the journey of the pioneering doctor.

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