The ominous beep from little Bella Achieng’s bed spelt trouble and a nurse rushed in her direction, only to discover that the eight-year-old girl’s heart had stopped beating.
Bella’s time of death was recorded as 8.53 pm on January 31, 2018. The little girl had lost a three-year-long fight to regain her life after an accident.
Her father Felix Oduor and mother Keisha Nwaigwe Oduor were devastated. They had given everything to save their firstborn. They had sold their house, held fundraisers and knocked doors of insurance companies to raise money for their daughter.
For two-and-a-half years up to the point of Bella’s death, they had stayed away from the place they called home, having moved 1,500km away to stay close to a hospital where she could get advanced care – especially to have her brain functionality restored.
They had spent money to the tune of Sh10 million to have her back on her feet. But, fate had decided that that night at the Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, would be her last.
Bella’s remains were cremated in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Thursday, a day she would have been eight years, three months and 23 days old. Her family will carry her ashes to their original home in Maryland, Baltimore, where they plan to hold a service before her burial. “Here, if you have cremated your loved one, it is easier to decide where you are going to bury them. They don’t like keeping bodies for long,” Mr Oduor told the Nation last week.
Mr Oduor, whose family hails from Siaya County, had left Kenya in 2000 and travelled to the US on a student visa. After studies, he got a job with Whole Foods Market, an Amazon-owned enterprise that focuses on organic food. He later met his wife Keisha, who was born in the US, and on August 14, 2008, they tied the knot.
A year later, Bella was born. She was a bubbly girl who “loved ballet, gymnastics and playing the piano” as stated in her obituary.
On the morning of December 8, 2014, the day the accident happened, Ms Oduor was driving Bella to Rosedale Baptist School. Also on board was Bella’s younger sister Layla, then aged two.
“Maryland usually gets cold and icy. Because of the ice, the car skidded to the other lane. A car coming from the opposite side hit them on the side where my wife and Bella were seated. Layla was on the other side,” said Mr Oduor.
The accident left the mother’s legs broken and her left hand fractured. Layla escaped unhurt. It is Bella who bore the brunt of the crash. Despite the fact that she was strapped in a car seat, her neck took a severe beating on impact. “They call it a hangman’s fracture. The neck almost came out,” said the father.
Affected were the two bones that connect the spine with the skull. To make matters worse, Bella had a heart attack on her way to John Hopkins Hospital, causing a brain injury. “They gave her 24 hours to live because anybody with either one of the injuries usually dies on the spot and if they survive, they usually pass away in 20-48 hours,” he said.
That was the start of the father’s three-year struggle to get his daughter back on her feet.
Doctors at John Hopkins hived off a piece of bone from her hip and inserted it on the fractured neck which the father said worked well. “She was in a coma for a month. She came out of it and started opening her eyes. But doctors were not optimistic especially because of the two injuries,” he added.
After that, doctors probed an opening on her windpipe to facilitate her breathing and later her parents realised that she could move her limbs a little.
The parents later took her to the Paediatric Rehabilitation Unit of the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. “She was there for two months and started showing signs of improvement. They helped her to finally get out of a breathing machine and breathe on her own,” he said.
Around that time, they heard of a doctor who performs oxygen therapy, a new healing technique where wounded people are given a dose of the gas to speed up recovery. “We decided to try the treatment; so we moved temporarily to New Orleans and then the first time we did the treatment, she had more improvement than we’d ever seen before. She was moving her hands and legs; she was looking aside,” explained Mr Oduor.
After a year, there were remarkable changes and Bella’s parents believed she was defying doctors’ predictions.
However, even after leaving the hospital and moving around on a specialised wheelchair, she never regained her speech and her brain could not coordinate her bodily functions, which means she needed help around the clock. “We had to change her diapers when she relieved herself. And when she slept, she could not turn herself. Every two hours every night, we had to turn her,” said Mr Oduor.
In the days leading up to her death, her parents had decided to have a tube inserted on her throat, called a trach tube, removed. “We decided with the doctor that we would take it out because there was no need of it being there. And, actually, that was a real cause of her infections,” he said.
Bella was in the intensive care unit during the removal of the trach tube. Her parents thought she was progressing well and on the second day, they moved her to a normal ward. That would be her final day alive.
The pursuit for medication had drained the family financially. “In the beginning, we were taking money from our savings; everything we had for our retirement,” he said. “We had a house and sold it. We also sold everything we owned.”
He approximated the total money spent to be $100,000 (Sh10.1 million). “Bella was a happy child. Everybody knew her. Nobody knew us. Everybody knew us as Bella’s parents,” he said.
But the experience has left him wiser. It has taught him to appreciate life. The Oduors are now planning to start an NGO to help parents faced with a similar situation.