Eldoret Kenya: The Death of Pamela Jabechi


On my first day photographing on the wards, I was making rounds with a group of physicians. We stopped at a bed where a young patient was lying. She sat up and the doctors began to do an evaluation. Listening to the physicians, I was able to determine that this patient had a heart valve problem. I wanted to capture a few images, so I made eye contact, and gestured with my camera....permission given, I began. At first Pamela, (the patient), kept looking down or away from the camera. Several times I pulled the camera away from my eye and made direct eye contact with her, she eventually got the idea that I wanted her to look at me while I photographed her. With her eyes locked on me I made several more images, then the doctors and I moved on to the next patient.

For the rest of the day and all night I couldn't get the vision of her penetrating eyes out of my head. Over the next several days I returned to the hospital and visited her.

One evening, I was using Dr Mamlin's computer to burn some CD-Roms. I don't know why, but I took Pamela's picture and made it the screen saver on his computer. The next morning Dr. Mamlin mentioned how much he liked the surprise of seeing Pamela's beautiful face on his computer, instead of the Microsoft logo.

Several days later on my departure from Eldoret, still unable to get Pamela's image out of my head, I asked Dr. Mamlin to tell me more about her, her condition and her prognosis. He told me things didn't look good for her, Pamela needed a surgical procedure, one done routinely in the US, but difficult and expensive to get done in Kenya.

I bid good bye to DR Mamlin and continued my assignment in neighboring Uganda.

From that day forward I kept thinking about and wondering about Pamela. When I returned to California, I emailed Dr. Mamlin to inquire about how Pamela was doing. Sadly, I received the following letter...


"Karl, Pamela died yesterday. I sent her to Nairobi. They finally did her heart surgery this week. She died in the ICU less than 24 hours post op. I am devastated as I know you will be. I got to know her and her family so well. I have made arrangements today to clear all of her bills and allow the family to bring her body back to the beautiful Nandi hills for burial this weekend. Some parts of this work are unbearable and take a piece out of your soul away. I suspect when I lose the capacity to feel that pain, it will be time to head home. For now, we must rebuild our smiles and our hope and tackle the next Pamela with courage---this place is full of Pamela's yet that one will be in my mind forever because of you and your wonderful eye. Joe"

I was shaken by the news, although I had almost expected it. Africa had been a difficult trip emotionally, it felt like such a bleak place with so little hope. I wanted so much to hear that one person, Pamela, in such a difficult place, got a lucky break. It was not so. Life, it seemed is truly unfair.

I often refer to DR Mamlin's letter, so eloquent, so pertinent, it helps me to understand and to grieve, but also, to have hope and continue working, doing what I have set out to do, doing what I am so passionate about.