As a kid, Eric had a reputation as ‘the bright one’ in Sirembe, a village in Southwestern Kenya. He was the third-born of seven siblings: curious, earnest and good in school.
But in sixth grade he started feeling ill. The symptoms resembled malaria, so his mother bought antimalarial drugs in the village market. The symptoms continued, but going to the hospital just wasn’t an option – it was far away, and getting there and paying for treatment was too expensive.
By eigth grade graduation, Eric’s symptoms were serious: extreme fatigue, thirst and weight loss. Yet somehow he continued to excel in school, setting in motion the biggest decision, and challenge, of his life.
When I failed
By September 2003 in his first year in high school, Eric reached a breaking point. “I could no longer hold on, and was taken to hospital,” he says.
Eric was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the hospital, and sent back to school in October with a single vial of insulin. He still remembers the date that that first, precious vial ran dry.
“I finished it on 1 December, 2003,” he says. After that, he returned to the village for school holidays, then returned to school the following January – all without further medical care or insulin.
Eric went without a clinic visit or insulin until October 2004, by which time he was so sick he had to drop out of school.
“I was an ambitious student, and some people mocked me when I failed,” he recalls. “Diabetes took away a big opportunity for me.”
A real ambassador
As one door closed, though, another cracked open. A teacher at Eric’s school told an acquaintance at The Kenya Diabetes Management and Information Centre about Eric’s plight and arranged an introduction.
“Fortunately, I was still in Nairobi,” Eric says now. “I enrolled at DMI as a beneficiary, and began receiving care and insulin. The DMI team went to the school and talked to the administration. I went back, and finished high school in 2006.”
Degree in hand, Eric sought ways to help others with diabetes in Kenya. He volunteered to help with prepartions for the annual Diabetes Walk in 2007, and received training as a diabetes peer educator. In 2011, DMI and other well-wishers helped Eric earn a diploma in nursing, and DMI hired him as a nurse educator in 2014. Today, he works at DMI as a nurse, educator, ambassador and programme officer for the Changing Diabetes in Children® programme.
“I’ve become a real ambassador – people call me with questions, and look for me at meetings,” he says, smiling. “I’m proud I’m able to contribute.”
Omondi, who used to be sick
The depth of this contribution was on display during a camp for people with type 1 and their families in January 2020. When Eric spoke about diabetes – the medical aspects of the disease, and how to treat it - participants listened carefully.
Yet in some ways, his personal example was even more important. Eric is a well-educated young man with a good job, a lovely wife and two young children.
As one parent at the camp explained: “After diagnosis, my son thought he wouldn’t live 10 years – now, he sees people with the condition who are graduates, who have families. This is very important.”
Eric with his daughters.
There’s a story Eric likes to tell, one that generates a special kind of laughter from Kenyans familiar with village life, and kids who have felt the sting of diabetes stigma first-hand.
“Two years after my diagnosis, when I had been on medications for 10 months, I returned home. And as I was walking, I heard one neighbor saying to another Is that Omondi, who used to be sick?"
"They were shocked, completely shocked – Are you cured? they said."
It still makes Eric laugh.
“Now they call me fat,” he says.