“I have never seen anyone prepared for death like this.” These are the words of Citizen TV journalist Jeff Koinange yesterday after the death of Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore.
Jeff, who was a close friend to Collymore, revealed that he hang out briefly with the CEO on Saturday, two days before the latter died.
“We had known this was coming; Bob had informed us. So we knew that he wasn’t gonna last very long. He had been told by his doctors not to make any long-term plans. In fact, he was told that if he makes it past July, he would be lucky,” said Jeff.
Collymore never lived to see the sunrise of July 1. He died yesterday at 2.30am in his Nairobi Home.
During their time together, Jeff said Collymore was in high spirits, although there was some pain. His spine was giving him problems and he kept standing up to stretch.
“He kept saying “look, I have lived a good life. I have some regrets; it’s not a perfect life, nobody is perfect, but I am ready now, I am ready”,” recalled Jeff during a breakfast TV show interview yesterday.Jeff said he kept Collymore company with a couple of friends. The CEO even walked them to the parking lot and they made plans to visit him again.For Collymore, however, cancer was not the problem. The problem was how long it would take the disease to be in remission. Nine months! This annoyed him.
“I thought, are you crazy? There is a company to be managed back home, and there is family… and stuff,” said Collymore, describing his reaction when the bombshell was dropped in a London hospital.The CEO was speaking on Jeff’s show, JKL, in August last year.
After numerous tests in Kenya, a doctor at Nairobi Hospital had referred him to a specialist in London.“He said “I think you have a problem with your blood, but I am not the expert so I wanna refer you to an expert, but I need to get you out of here soon”,” said Collymore.
The country was approaching the second round of the 2017 General Election, and the year would soon be coming to an end, a busy time for any company.
Collymore thought: “I will go after that” but the doctor said “I want you to leave (for London) tonight”.
That is when it hit him that maybe what he suffered from was serious. This was confirmed when, on arrival in London, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
By the time he was diagnosed, Collymore had sampled Kenya’s medical system and spent thousands of shillings.
“When I was diagnosed in London I was told I probably had this thing for six months and did not know,” he said.
The first time he went to a doctor, he said he was feeling tired and had a high temperature from time to time. And the diagnosis: Vitamin D deficiency.
“So I said look, let me go see a proper doctor,” Collymore told Jeff with a chuckle.That is how he ended up at Nairobi Hospital, where he said he spent Sh100,000 to run 30 tests. Still, doctors could not find what was wrong.“He (doctor) said, I don’t know what the problem is, but I need some more tests, so I need to admit you. It was actually the first time I had ever been admitted in hospital,” Collymore said.
Upon admission, bone marrow was extracted and tests run, which led to a suspicion of cancerous cells.
When the doctor in London told him he might have had the cancer for at least six months, Collymore recalled the first time he felt unwell.
He was in Morocco, and he was feverish and had flu-like symptoms.“I noticed pain in my shin, which is not the kind of pain you would feel unless you kick something hard,” he recalled.
“My wife, Wambui, said “I think you got malaria” because she is really good at self-diagnosing. She called her mum, and the mum said, yeah it’s probably malaria.”Collymore confessed that the treatment regime was not easy.
But the CEO, known for his dry sense of humour, dropped at the most unexpected times in conversations, joked about how long it would take to get better.
“We did not know how long it was going to take. Honestly, at that time, I thought it’s gonna take maybe eight weeks or so. When we were told six to nine months – you know being a Safaricom person – we would then think, yeah we can probably do that in five (months),” he said.
“So it actually turned out to be nine months and two weeks.”Collymore said he met a “fantastic” haematologist who was candid about the harshness of the chemotherapy and possible failure of the stem cell transfusion.
It was explained to him that the major issue with the disease was that when diagnosed late, people were normally not fit enough to go through the whole treatment regime.
But he said the doctor gave some hope: “I think you are fine, your heart is fine, your lung is fine, your kidneys are fine, your liver is fine, so I think we will put you through it, but it’s gonna be a little harsh.”Being diagnosed with cancer, Collymore said, was not such a big deal for him.
“You know for me, you got cancer – you got cancer. There is nothing much you can do about it. You see it’s the curative programme that will be six to nine months. I thought this is gonna be tough,” he said in the interview.
The haematologist said he would commence chemotherapy in a few days, which forced Collymore to tell his management back at Safaricom of the news, and how long he would be away.
The treatment involved three doses of chemotherapy every day for 10 days. The chemo was to get rid of blast cells, which had refused to transform to either blood or white blood cells. After this, he would undergo stem cell transfusion.But after the chemotherapy in February last year, Collymore thought he was ready to go home.
He was feeling better already. But the doctor had other ideas.“(He said) “if you go I guarantee you that in six months’ time the cancer will be back and it would be worse than when you came. Then I don’t think that I can put you through a curative programme. I think we gonna have to maintain through chemotherapy.”
A possible failure of the transplant, which he got from an undisclosed donor in the United States, is the other thing he admitted he was upset about apart from how long the treatment was to take.
In the isolation room in London, Collymore said death did pay him a visit. He thought about it and decided to make peace with it.
“That’s the point when you think, you know, I might not come back,” he said, laughing it off. “Then you look at the options. You know I am one of the people who believe that when I die, I actually wanna be cremated pretty quickly.”
But Collymore got well. It was August 2018, and he was back in Kenya with the good news for any cancer patient that he was in remission.
“I am in complete remission today, but like other cancer patients, we spend the next five years being under a watchful eye. I met my doctor today, she and I meet every fortnight, and I do regular blood tests.
”He said the doctor was keen on how the first year would go, only for it to turn out to be the only year he was left with.
During yesterday’s interview, Jeff disclosed that Collymore had recently taken a turn for the worse.
“In fact, a few weeks ago, his wife Wambui had asked a couple of us to donate blood for platelets. His blood refused to clot. He was getting nose bleeds out of the blues,” Jeff said.
But Collymore was prepared for death. He admitted during an interview with Jeff that being diagnosed with leukemia did not upset him that much.
“I kinda expected it,” he said.Collymore said if he had not sought a second opinion, he would have been dead by December 2017.
“It would have killed me by Christmas for sure. I would have been ex-CEO, the late,” he said, with a smirk on his face.
Ever the problem solver and innovator, even as he battled ill health, Collymore did not shy away from pointing out the challenges that would face a common citizen after a cancer diagnosis.
“What happens to the poor Kenyan who suffers from this?” he posed.
“One, you not gonna be diagnosed because you will think its fever and this is always the problem. People do not go to get diagnosed for whatever, because, one, they do not have the money, so there are many people who will be dying in the world and Kenya for sure due to lack of diagnosis and lack of a cure.”
Collymore said nobody should die from cancer in this day and age of advanced science.
He said what made cancer scary was how people reacted once one break the news.
“In my family, my ex-wife and my sister all had cancer, and she (ex-wife) celebrated her fifth year cancer-free when I was in London and my sister is six years cancer-free. So you don’t have to die of cancer.”The problem, he said, lay with the healthcare system which “can never be free by the simple fact of how long it takes to train a doctor”.
“But we also have a problem with insurance because people can’t afford insurance. For the country to provide free healthcare is a challenge, so people have to find a solution.”
Collymore said strong family support also played a key role, noting that he had his wife to thank for being by his side.He said during his stay in hospital, he got goodwill messages from many Kenyans, including archbishops, imams and sheikhs.
With a mischievous smile, Collymore said there were even people who were trying to “resist” him, a reference to the #ResistSafaricom movement during the disputed presidential election.All that energy made him decide to get better. “I thought, how the heck can I afford to die and let all these people down?”