It's 10:15 pm on November 8th, 2011, and I am on board an air ambulance en-route to Nairobi. My best buddy is reposed and scarcely visible in the glow of monitors and cabin lights around him. He has suffered a massive heart attack and I'm praying to God he gets the care he so desperately needs. His condition is serious, yet he grips my hand with a strength that assures me he might just make it.
Our Cessna Citation took off a moment ago from Entebbe Airport and we are ascending rapidly into a strobing cloudbank over Lake Victoria, which looks like a row of plasma globes through the windows of the turboprop jet. Nonetheless, the ride is smooth. It shouldn't take us more than an hour to reach Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) where a waiting ambulance will transfer us to the Intensive Care Unit at Nairobi Hospital, and into the superlative care of Dr David Silverstein, one of East Africa's foremost cardiologists.
As though trying to free himself from a fishing net, my buddy is agitated and fidgety from the steady dose of adrenaline coursing through his veins, and struggles with the temporary pacemaker and a plethora of tubes and wires attached to his body. The two volunteer flying doctors at his side - one black one white - urge him to relax while they tend to his failing heart. Their expert cardiological skills are a wonder to observe, and a testament to the capabilities of the African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF), who operate the air ambulance service.
"What's your prognosis?" I asked Dr Richard Stockley, the clinic's leading physician.
"What he needs is a pacemaker," said Stockley, "He's suffered significant damage to the area known as the sinus node which generates the electrical waves making his heart beat. We're calling all around Kampala right now trying to find one, but it's doesn't look promising. His best chance is if we transfer him to Nairobi as soon as possible."
"What are we waiting for?" I retorted, "let's do that."
"Air ambulances don't come cheap," said Stockley, raising an eyebrow and stroking his prominent chin, "And these people are brutal: they will not leave the ground until they know full payment has been made."
"How much?" I asked with trepidation; my friend was not a man of means.
I immediately began fundraising on my cell phone, and woke up a few friends around the world. Another kindred spirit on another continent agreed to front the costs, if no one else would. (How amazing is that?) Armed with her pledge, and a financial guarantee from the British Residence Association in Uganda that Stockley had secured, we green lighted the air ambulance, which then took off from Nairobi's Wilson Airport with a pacemaker on board. Thankfully, by the time the flying doctors arrived, my friend's employers had agreed to foot the bill, and his benefactress on the other side of the world could put away her cheque book.
During our countless Saturday afternoon sessions at the Bukoto Beer Garden, he consistently lamented his isolation in Africa. He had lived on the continent for a decade and a half, during which time none of his family had ever come to visit. I began to wonder if they were real. But any doubts about his support network were quickly dashed after word got out of his condition. During the course of that afternoon, I spoke to nearly all of his loved ones, as I sought to reassure them the doctors were doing everything in their powers to save him. His son booked himself on the next available flight to Nairobi so he too could be at his dad's bedside. I was finally going to meet one of his bairns.
My buddy awakes and smiles. "I love you," he tells me, with a twinkle in his eye. One of his favourite sayings is "There is no communication without love," so it may just be the parsimonious Scot talking, spendthrift in every way, including matters of the heart. Nonetheless, I feel grand to hear him say it.
A familiar pattern of flickering lights comes in to view on the ground below as the Citation jet begins its descent into the Kenyan capital. Soon we're on the ground and while the medical team carry him into the ambulance I race across the tarmac with our passports to the Arrivals hall. Having experienced a fast track service with few formalities at Entebbe, I'm expecting the same at Kenyan immigration. No dice. The oversized school boy displaying a droopy lower lip you could recline on, and the stripes of a senior officer, refuses to allow anything other than the protracted procedure of filling out lengthy visa applications and immigration forms, while my friend remains in critical condition in an ambulance outside. "How would you feel if it was your mother?" I ask, but all he does is shrug. After handing over the cash, I wait for his subordinate to slowly paste a page-sized visa sticker in each of our passports, and then fill out receipts.
At long last, we reach the Emergency Room at Nairobi Hospital. The flying doctors race him into surgery while I deal with formalities at Admissions. I had spent a number of years in the UK where most medical treatment comes free of charge, consequently I am quite shocked by the emphasis on up front payment. It's 2 o'clock in the morning, but before they agree to admit him for such intensive care, they insist I raise his boss or anyone with a credit card and make a deposit. Eventually they agree to admit him without the deposit, but warn me they will be forced to move him to a 'local' hospital if payment is not made before noon the next day. Phew!
I returned to Kampala in an overnight Akamba bus, a far cry from the comfort and speed of the medevac jet I'd flown out on. It did give me pause to reflect on what had been a dramatic week in Kenya. I decided it should not take something as drastic as a cardiac arrest to make one seriously think about one's own mortality. I know my friend will experience a sea change in his life; he's quit smoking for one, and probably won't be drinking anything stronger than tonic water during our regular sessions at the Bukoto Beer Garden when he returns. That is if he returns to Africa after convalescing in Europe. I truly hope he does, because Kampala is downright diminished without him.
No doubt he will find inspiration in his experience. As an eloquent wordsmith whose prose has yet to see the light of day, and a gifted painter whose not painted for years, my friend is, I would say after this episode, God's gift to the world. Perhaps like Boswell and Johnson, we'll both become celebrated men of letters in the years ahead. Maybe one day you'll read one of his books and realise about whom I have written. This is my communication to him.