Until last month, the US had never had any student graduating with a master's degree in Nuclear Medicine Technology. Then four students achieved the feat at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB), including a Kenyan.
John Gitau Wairimu, 34, was thrust from obscurity to international fame overnight. Gits, as he is popularly known, was in a unique class — the first course in the US to offer a graduate entry-level degree in the field. It is also the only nuclear medicine technology programme in the state of Alabama.
While his academic history speaks volumes of his intelligence, less known is how his success defied the odds of being raised by a single mother. Speaking to the Star in an email conversation from his Birmingham residence, he recounts his upbringing in Karura, Kiambu county.
Born to a household full of women, he had to learn and train himself to be the man of the house, and he is confident he “turned out well”.
“Actually, I didn’t realise I did not have a father until I was around 12 years. I was getting baptised and had to have my parents fill out the required church application. Upon returning the form, I was sent back home because the father’s slot was not completed. I remember my mother telling me confidently, ‘Go say you don’t have a father’. And I did so.”
Gits would have loved to grow up with a father figure around him, but he says it doesn’t always have to be so.
“We all have fathers, only in some cases, they just decide not be part of our lives. It does not mean the end of the universe; life has to go on,” he says.
“Growing up, I received so much love and support. There was no chance to realise that a father figure was missing in my life. I had my mother Joyce Wairimu Gitau, my sister Sarah Wanjiku Wairimu, my aunt Betty Gitau Njuguna and my grandmother Wanjiku Gitau raising me in a way that I excelled above many children my age who had both parents. They are still out there in Karura.”
Gits was ever the top pupil in his class all through primary school.
“When the KCPE results were announced, I had scored 532 marks out of 700, while the second student had around 460.That was the first time the school had someone score that high a mark, and it caused a frenzy in my village,” he says. He then joined Kiambu High School.
“Teachers were assigned to small groups of students as mentors called teacher-parent. Teachers would mentor their group members, helping to mould the boys in matters not related to school. I was assigned to the then school principal, Mr GM Njoroge, as my teacher-parent. He was my father figure through high school, and gave me actual life coaching, for which I am grateful to this day,” he remembers.
Constant absence from class due to lack of school fees cost Gits his dream grade A in form four, but he told himself he must make it up one day, somehow. This impressive master’s degree, he says, is his moment in the sun. To cap it all, he has finished as the most outstanding master’s student at the hospital rotations of the 2017 class.
Gits’ pursuit of tertiary education would see him make his way to the US after several negative responses to his visa applications. He was then hosted by his uncle in Alabama as he hustled through jobs to pay his way through university.
His passion for fixing things made him pursue a degree in automotive manufacturing, but he dropped out after only a year, due to the collapsing industry. He badly needed a career that employed his love of physics, and he did not like nursing, the career path for many in the Diaspora.
He would then take up medicine, although still, his career advisers thought he had a huge background in physics and should be best used in nuclear studies. He took it up emphatically.
Gits would finish his associate degree, then apply for the nuclear medicine course. He didn’t qualify, so he opted for a degree in public health. Just as he was finishing undergraduate, the master’s in nuclear medicine programme was introduced at the UAB. He applied, but missed, again!
The plucky young man did not give up. He went back to study for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) another whole year. He finally made the cut-off points and was accepted when he re-applied for the course.
Gits loves challenges, and this course gave him the juice to keep at it. In spite of difficulties, especially raising tuition fees, he stayed on, eventually graduating last month.
‘GIVE HEALTHCARE PRIORITY’
Nuclear medicine technology is a highly specialised field that utilises radiopharmaceuticals for both diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. Nuclear medicine technologists were recently ranked among the top 25 amazing healthcare support jobs of 2017 by a US publication.
Gits, who is still single, says his studies have taken loads of his time from the social scene, but he prays that God will direct him to the right woman to settle down with. He is now eyeing PhD studies in healthcare management, despite receiving several job offers in the US.
Asked about young Kenyans losing their lives to hopelessness, drugs and poverty, he offers words of encouragement.
“I am a living proof that persistence, faith and determination pays. It has been a long process for me that included dropping out of school for nearly three years, but I kept my head above the water, kept struggling without losing hope, no matter how long it took me — 13 years in total.”
He says the fear of letting down his mother and the people who believed in him encouraged and urged him on. His mother is “my best role model, along with aunty Betty and my grandmother”. He feels that healthcare in Kenya is not funded enough nor given the attention it deserves.
“I think the problem in Kenya is leadership. We pick unqualified people into leadership positions yet they do not even have the slightest idea of how to run, maintain or budget for heathcare.
“Healthcare should be the priority for the government, but that sounds like a myth in many parts of Africa,” he concludes.