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Running Critical Care Wards By Day, and Studying by Night

Jackline Tindih, Senior Nurse Manager at the Kenyatta University Teaching, Referral and Research Hospital in Kenya, and Silas Okullu, a registered nurse at the Soroti Regional Referral Hospital in Eastern Uganda, are at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 in East Africa, and are setting the standard for critical care delivery in their respective hospitals.
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Every morning, Jackline Tindih gets up at 4 a.m. and drives two and a half hours to start work as a Senior Nurse Manager at the Kenyatta University Teaching, Referral and Research Hospital (KUTRRH) in Nairobi. Arriving at the hospital by 6.30 a.m., she checks on her patients (“They are my boss!,” she says, grinning), getting to know their individual personalities, backgrounds and health concerns, before starting her managerial work. After finishing her day 12 hours later, she arrives home around 9 p.m., when she starts studying for her MBA.

Tindih is a remarkable nurse, a compassionate leader, a dedicated scholar, and a graduate of Aga Khan University School of Nursing and Midwifery (AKU-SONAM). At 43, Tindih already has decades of experience on the front lines of critical care. When she joined KUTRRH—one of the largest hospitals in Kenya and a key part of the country’s efforts to achieve universal health coverage—she was tasked with setting up the hospital’s critical care department. Now, she is ensuring the department maintains its high standards by designing programs and policies for the nurses she oversees.

Tindih’s achievements are a testament to her personal drive and skill and the education she received at AKU-SONAM. Since 2000, the program has seen 2,388 graduates become innovative, qualified working nurses and midwives—one of whom was Tindih. As the fees involved in getting a degree is a barrier for many students like Tindih, the Johnson & Johnson Foundation began partnering with AKU-SONAM in 2001 to offer financial support to its nursing and midwifery students in countries across East Africa to enable them to learn, grow and utilize their experience to transform the health of the communities they serve.

Educating future leaders

The road to AKU-SONAM was not easy for Tindih. Even though she graduated school with exceptional grades, Tindih had to work as a casual laborer in a farm before following her passion for nursing. After undertaking a nursing course, and later training in midwifery, she worked in a critical care unit in Malawi for two years, before returning to Kenya with a scholarship from the Johnson & Johnson Foundation to enroll in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at AKU-SONAM in 2016. “I really wanted to invest in my education but I have had to rely on loans,” says Tindih. “When I heard about the scholarship, I was so happy and motivated. The team behind KUTRRH has a big vision to deliver premium care but we can only do that with the right training.”

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Since then, Tindih has remained committed to learning, having received a postgraduate degree in critical care from Cardiff University, and now undertaking an MBA—all while balancing her job at KUTRRH and her role as a mother.

“What motivates me most in my career is seeing patients recovering, in part due to my role as a leader,” says Tindih. “I ask myself: what have you put in place to make sure that this patient does not lose their life? It is my duty as a manager and a critical care nurse to make sure that I am always growing.”

Students fighting the COVID-19 pandemic

The AKU-SONAM program allows students to continue working while they learn, meaning they do not have to wait until they graduate to put their newfound knowledge into practice. In fact, AKU students have played a vital role in the fight against COVID in their respective countries.

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Silas Okullu, a 33-year-old student at SONAM Uganda, is set to graduate in 2022. Alongside his studies, he works at the Soroti Regional Referral Hospital in Eastern Uganda—currently a COVID-19 epicenter. “When COVID-19 broke out, we had a formal assembly and were asked whether anyone wanted to volunteer to set up a unit,” he recalls. “I was chosen to be the nurse in charge of the new COVID unit, which we built from scratch.” Okullu worked quickly, borrowing beds from other wards, asking the administration to provide equipment, and setting safety and hygiene standards. “When we got our first COVID-19 patient, around May 2020, we were ready. We administered the best possible care to them and, when they were discharged after 21 days, we had a party in the hospital to celebrate our achievement!”

Okullu was inspired to work in healthcare by his grandmother, who was a midwife. “When I was a young boy, I would go with her to the hospital and watch what the doctors and nurses were doing.” Like Tindih, he balances his demanding job at the hospital with his studies, taking two days off per week to attend lectures, and catching up on school assignments after shifts.

Okullu was also a recipient of a scholarship from the Johnson & Johnson Foundation to support his education at AKU-SONAM. “Receiving the scholarship has given me energy to keep pushing and pursuing this career, and developing myself. I would love to do a Master’s in critical care next,” he adds.

A commitment to lifelong learning

Along with helping his community recover from COVID-19, Okullu is focused on improving mental healthcare in his department—for both patients and healthcare workers. “There is a lot of trauma. I have seen people who have lost both parents in a week, and then as healthcare workers we spend up to eight hours a day in PPE to make sure that our patients’ needs are met, all the time worrying about contracting the virus and passing it to our family members. But we have very few psychosocial care workers and they can’t cover the entire community.”

Tindih, in turn, is focused on another key health challenge in Kenya: cancer. “With lifestyles changing, cancer is really on the rise in the country,” she explains. At KUTRRH, they are focused on setting up the best possible cancer ward so that patients don’t have to leave the country for treatment. “I have drafted the critical care curriculum and we are starting to train doctors and nurses to raise their awareness about cancer and build their capacity.”

Despite the challenges on the horizon, both Tindih and Okullu demonstrate a lifelong commitment to learning, not just to satisfy their own curiosity but to be the best possible caregivers. “My hands, heart and mind are open,” says Tindih. “I am always looking to grow my knowledge, to help me make better policies. I know that my knowledge is going to help me save lives.”

Okullu agrees: “There is no way that I am going to leave the healthcare system. I am here to keep learning and fighting for my community. My motivation is seeing my patients being discharged, healthy and able to thank me for taking care of them. Saving lives is one of the best experiences you can ever have.”