Kenya • 2004

My journey to Kenya began in 2000 when I was a junior in nursing school and a friend invited me to accompany her to an information meeting about a mission trip she didn’t want to attend alone.

That summer, I found myself in villages in the Western Kenya without my friend.

In those villages, I listened and learned each day from remarkable Kenyan leaders who cared about the suffering of their people.

I saw the realities of AIDS within the context of a real-life setting. There, Troubling statistics took on a new meaning to me. Numbers became young people with names and stories, all of whose lives mattered.

Despite the suffering and lack of medical resources, I couldn’t help but also take notice of the deep sense of community that I had never experienced before. I was far rom home yet I felt embraced and welcomed. This sense of belonging has stayed with me over the years I’ve lived in Kenya, and I’ve watched it over and over again as the community continues to openly welcome visitors.

After graduation, I began to work nights in Los Angeles, CA as a nurse on an HIV unit while studying in a nurse practitioner program. My experiences in Africa never left me, and the AIDS crisis in Kenya still gripped me. 

Time Magazine. 12 Jan. 2001, www.time.com/

The February 2001 edition of Time magazine featured a haunting photograph of an African child nestled against her grandmother. The child was wasted from disease.

The words beside the image read: Look at the pictures. Read the words. And then try not to care.

The story stated: “Africa can provide no treatment for those with AIDS.”

I didn’t pretend to think I would be able to fix it, but I wondered if there was a place for me to help in some way or another.

No one should die alone

This was one of the convictions that led me to move to Kipkaren, Kenya in 2004. By now, HIV was mostly being treated as a chronic disease in the United States. 

In Kenya,  there was much fear and stigma. We didn’t have access to testing or treatment. Virtually everyone was affected in devastating ways.

Three months after arriving in Kipkaren, I met Kibet lying under the shade of a tree. His body was ravaged by untreated disease, and little more than a skeletal frame remained.  A neighbor had requested I go and check on the man with ugonjwa, the sickness. Everyone assumed it was AIDS, but no one uttered the word. There was still too much stigma and fear.

Sitting under the tree with Kibet I was both struck by grief and despair. I wanted to help him, but I didn’t know where to even begin. I didn’t have the resources I had in Los Angeles, and I wasn’t sure where to find them. 

Weeks after meeting, I learned about a nearby clinic. Kibet and I drove ten miles to the clinic in search of help. Upon arriving, Dr. Joe Mamlin, a doctor from Indiana University, stood in the doorway and simply introduced himself to me as Joe.

“My neighbor is terribly sick. I brought him to the clinic to see if there might be help available.”

“Well, let me show you something.” Joe ushered me into a room filled with HIV test kits, nutritional support, and antiretroviral drugs, but all I saw was hope.

That Friday, Kibet was tested and started on proper treatment. It felt like a miracle.

That Friday, Joe—a humble professor of medicine from Indiana University whose idea of retirement involved building one of the largest and most successful HIV-treatment programs in the world—became my mentor and my friend. 

Joe taught me how to dream impossible dreams but also how to love in tangible ways.

This is how the story begins for Kimbilio

Five years later, I was still living in Kipkaren, working alongside a small but committed team of Kenyans who were passionate about the holistic care we provided to our patients and their families in the community. All the while, a dream was rising within me to build a hospice to serve patients with advanced cancer and HIV/AIDS in Western Kenya.

In 2009, I founded Living Room International. Soon after, we built a twenty-four-bed inpatient facility and called it Kimbilio, meaning refuge in Swahili.