With a heavy heart and tear-filled eyes, I summon the courage to write this Eulogy to my brave and courageous daughter, Zainab Aliyu, who lost the battle to Hodgkin Lymphoma (cancer that affects the blood) on May 7, 2015. Zainab was diagnosed with cancer when she was 20 years old.
Her ill health started in 2003, between the ages of nine and 10 years. I remember she first broke out in a cough accompanied by catarrh and high fever which ended up to be Tuberculosis infection. She observed the free nine months TB treatment at Dantsoho Memorial Hospital, Kaduna, and at the end of the treatment, she was certified TB free and advised to return to the hospital for any complaint.
Few months after, she came up with lymph nodes which her doctor thought to be a residue of the TB treatment. But when it didn’t go, he referred her to Haematology Unit of Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital (ABUTH), Shika, where some lymph nodes were extracted and tested, and showed ‘Non Malignant but Positive to Brucellosis (an infection spread from animals to people, mostly by unpasteurised dairy products).
The doctors were not convinced with the results though. In late 2012 when the ear pain persisted, a surgery was performed at Ear Care Centre, Kaduna, where part of her lap was removed to mend an opening in the Ear. All went well and she went back to school only to be brought back home due to excessive leg pain and body numbness.
She was then taken back to her Ear Doctor, who advised she takes a Physician’s Assessment. On his advice, I took her to a renowned Private Hospital in Kaduna, where again, lab tests showed Brucellosis while Chest X-ray showed multiple Lymph nodes. She was placed on three weeks medication for Brucellosis and Cataflam for pain, but the more Cataflam she took, the more pain and sleepless nights she experienced.
It reached a stage where she could not stand straight independently. She felt like her Spinal Cord could not hold her. Whenever she wants to walk around the house, I’d use a wrapper to hold her tight and straight while her brothers would support her. They would make a jest of her, calling her an invalid.
We were oblivious to what was ahead of us. At this stage, a kind relative who pitied Zainab so much sponsored her to International Medical Center (IMC), Cairo, Egypt, in late 2013. At IMC, it took three weeks of laboratory testing, City Scan, MRI and a PET scan before the team of Dr Mahmud Salla determined her illness.
Finally, the day he confirmed our worst fear, it felt like the world stood still. We were shocked and appalled. Accepting the fact that Zainab was a cancer patient wasn’t easy at all. I always wished the doctor would call us back and apologise for the wrong misinterpretation of her blood tests.
But my wish never came true; nothing changed the fact that Zainab was truly a cancer patient. The only good thing was, she accepted it in good faith and looked forward to her treatment with strong conviction that she would win the battle. The best of times for Zainab was when she had her first successful Stem Cell Transplant which, as part of the treatment, made her stay for one good month in isolation.
The day she came out was one of our happiest days – the whole family was overwhelmed with Joy, we prayed and even made a sacrifice to thank God. Our joy didn’t last long, however, as she didn’t even get to achieve any of her plans when she started complaining of a backache again and rapidly losing a lot of weight.
After series of checks, her doctor confirmed a relapse – that is, a reoccurrence of the disease, which necessitated her going through another circle of chemotherapy.
In the process of her new circle of chemotherapy, she developed swollen feet as a result of having High Creatinine, an indication that her kidneys were affected and as such, the use of catheter around the kidney area was suggested by her doctor. She abhorred it and really looked forward to the day it would be removed while at the same time, teased about it by describing it as her designer bag.
Sadly, her health kept deteriorating instead of improving and admission into hospital became more frequent with longer days and huge bills. Eventually, she started getting tired easily that it reached a stage when she could not walk within the hospital premises or any long distance. So, the use of a wheel chair became inevitable and this stifled her hope of learning Arabic. I remember a day she asked me why she was suffering so much at such a young age.
It was a difficult question, but looking at her beautiful face, I mustered the courage to explain to her that God has reasons for everything, good or bad and that her illness was nothing but Allah’s trial. I told her that for any adversity, Allah erases one’s sins and no human being escapes Allah’s trial, everyone faces it in his/her own way.
I gave her example of thousands of people, both young and old, including babies, that have suffered or are suffering from cancer, people who could not afford three square meals, talk less of a place to call home.
One funny thing I can’t forget was how one of her doctors developed an interest in her. Almost every morning, he would come to her room and beg her to tell him she loves him. At a point, he got into a dilemma for the fact that he was engaged and at the same time falling for Zainab. On a particular day, he asked her to advise him on what to do about his fiancé as he was so much in love with her (Zainab). I remember how she laughed and laughed and told him to forget her as first things first. He was engaged, it was better for him to go ahead with his plan and allow her to finish her treatment. His visits, prayers, jokes and confessions of his love made Zainab happy.
Something else that raised my hope was her doctor’s recommendation for another transplant known as Analogous Transplant, this time, using any of her siblings that their Blood Human Leucocyte Antigen (HLA) matches. Another option was for me to get pregnant so that the baby could be used to save her. Unfortunately, all of her four brothers weren’t a complete match with her.
I was mad at myself for my inability to help her either due to some health reasons. So we were left with the option of Donor search from Donor Centres at a very exorbitant price, apart from the huge bill of the transplant at $50,000.
The bill for a new Chemotherapy Drug (Brentuximab CD30) that the doctor prescribed was $80,000 for eight circles, while Donor would be sourced at $40,000 apart from other miscellaneous costs which we could not afford. Hence, we embarked on ‘Save Zainab’ campaign that went viral on local and social media with the hashtag #SpareAThotForZainab.
In my own effort as a caregiver, with the permission of the Doctor, I joined the hospital in the online search for a donor. I contacted so many Donor Registries in New York, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, India, Australia etc and the Centre in Enugu, Nigeria, but no donor was found.
But I was impressed with the response of the Nigerian Bone Marrow Registry. They extended their search to South Africa and even suggested that we stage a Donor Drive as the opportunity to gather a lot of people to be tested.
We were so excited at the prospect, even though it didn’t hold eventually. In spite of what happened, her Chemotherapy continued after three weeks interval. I was still hopeful, especially as she was eating, walking and gisting normally except when she was in pain.
But then, I noticed a change in Dr Mahmud’s attitude towards her case as he seemed to pity her so much that he gave flimsy excuses for skipping her room during ward rounds. But the fact that he never faced me to say that she had exhausted her treatment line, I was determined to take her to the end of the world for a second opinion so long as she was breathing.
After contact with St. Jude’s Hospital in America for a free treatment failed, we settled to take her to BLK Hospital, India, considering the proximity. We arrived at BLK Hospital, India on March 1 and she was admitted on the March 2, 2015.
Under the care of Dr Gaurav Kharya, an expert in Bone Marrow Transplant, I had hope that she would get a different treatment, a Donor Match and would be well again. But in the end, I realised it was more or less a continuation of the same procedure in Egypt; only with different drugs and same huge bills.
Night of the sixth day, when her donor brother was leaving us to go back to Nigeria, he was allowed to enter the ICU to bid her goodbye and immediately he entered, he hugged me and asked me to tell the doctors to remove all the tubes. I asked him why, he said: “Can’t you see her Mami, she’s suffering, she doesn’t need them anymore”.
Then it dawned on me that she could be dying. Immediately, with a feeling I can’t describe, I turned to Zainab and called her name and surprisingly, she nodded in answer. I asked if she could hear me, she nodded in the affirmative again.
Then I told her to be supplicating to God, the kalimati shahada and if she can’t, she should call any of the 99 Names of Allah. I asked her again, can you hear me, Zainab, she nodded yes. Then I turned back towards her brother. Without a word, he left the cubicle.
On the sixth day, May 7, 2015, as I entered the ICU in the morning, one of the doctors immediately, held my hand and said “Ma’am, we are sorry, your daughter is a little sick this morning, we can do nothing more for her. If you can, go sit beside her and hold her hands”.
Like a zombie, I walked into her cubicle, sat by her side, crying, praying and reciting the Kalimatu Shahada. God was my only hope at that moment.
At that point, another doctor called my attention and said “Sorry Ma’am, from the reading of the machine, your daughter has few minutes left. Better call your People in Nigeria to decide where you want to bury her”. I was trying to control myself when another doctor again came in and said, “Sorry Ma’am, we will help make it peaceful for your daughter”. Before I could say anything, he called one of the nurses and ordered her to sedate her.
Innalillahi Wa Inna Ilaihi Raji’uun (from Allah we come and to Him we shall return). In between tears, I called her father in Nigeria and we decided to bury her in India.No sooner had I dropped the phone than the life support machine gave a straight sound which indicated that my brave and optimistic Zainab was gone.
May Allah forgive her of her sins, ameen. There’s no word strong or adequate enough to describe the pain of losing her.
She was buried according to Islamic injunctions at Nizamuddin Masjid Grave Yard, New Delhi.
To all cancer patients, KEEP FIGHTING HARD.
By Hafsat Aliyu
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