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 (a cancer that affects the blood) on the 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. She first broke out in a cough accompanied by catarrh and high fever which ended up to be Turberclusis 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 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.
About a year after, she started experiencing ear pain and like the lymph nodes, all checks at the National Ear Care Centre, Kaduna, proved nothing bad but she kept having occurrence of wounds and inflammations despite medications. This affected her studies, as on some days, she missed school, while on other days, she missed morning classes for dressing of the ear. That was how she schooled on and off at Essence International School, Kaduna.
In 2008, when more lymph nodes appeared, she was taken to the Nasir Institute in Egypt and after all tests, she was given a clean bill of health. We were so happy that at least she was free of cancer. But not up to a week after she returned to Nigeria, lymph nodes came out on both sides of her neck and she was sponsored back to the American hospital in Dubai. There, the doctor vowed to prove Nigerian and Egyptian doctors wrong about her condition but when the results came out negative, he was speechless. He then advised that she should be examined from time to time as not all lymph nodes are a good sign.
By middle of 2012, some of the lymph nodes became so obvious that she used veils to cover them whenever she’s going out. Again, she was taken to Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital for checkup. The doctor, using her test results from ABUTH, advised that the ear problem should be resolved as it could be the cause of the lymph nodes.
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. The condition lingered till early 2013 when she was in her third year at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
A kind hearted person again sponsored her to Iranian Hospital, Dubai. There again, all tests proved that the Lymph nodes were Non Malignant, although the Doctor suspected Tuberculosis of the Spinal Cord, but lab tests proved negative. As there was no precise diagnosis, she returned to Nigeria with a deteriorated condition. At this point, we knew Zainab’s health was at stake as all symptoms of being seriously ill had started prevailing – her legs got swollen, then lethargy, Night breathlessness, chest pain, headache, back pain, fatigue, vomiting, lack of appetite and weight loss. She also broke out in small itchy rash all over her body. I remember she had similar rash when she was a baby of about eight months old.
We were at a loss as to what exactly the problem was, to the extent that we believed she was possessed by some kind of evil spirit as no doctor within and outside Nigeria was able to give a precise diagnosis. To help ease her pains, we started her on herbs but that only worsened her condition as she kept vomiting and losing weight while the lymph node on her neck became more swollen and a bit painful.
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 jest of her, calling her an invalid. We were oblivious of 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 lab testing, City Scan, MRI and a Pet Scan before the team of doctor 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.
I will not forget how she leaned on my shoulder while I held and squeezed her hands to comfort her. We both knew it’s the beginning of a difficult time, a very hard trial, knowing quite well that surviving cancer is like taboo. Dr Mahmud pacified her and assured us that with current cancer treatment, Zainab had a chance at life, only it would take time, patience, money, prayers and endurance.
Something else that raised my hope was her doctor’s recommendation for another transplant known as Anologus Transplant, this time, using any of her sibling 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 Centers 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.
We arrived at BLK Hospital, India on the 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.
After rounds of Beacopp Protocol and all search for a donor failed, the doctor decided to go for Haplo Transplantation, which is using her immediate brother on half match for the Transplant. Unfortunately, getting her donor brother to India for the transplant proved difficult. The Indian Embassy officials were so strict despite all proof that the trip was for medical reasons. We almost gave up before he arrived, accompanied by their father and my husband.
Eventually, Zainab had the transplant on partial remission but looked fragile afterwards but at the same time, was extremely excited and kept smiling for a long time. When she got better, she asked me to buy a phone as a gift for her donor brother, who gave her a chance at life. Seeing she was stable, her father left for Nigeria.
We believed it was the end of the wicked cancer and I was eager for her to be stronger and be discharged but I was wrong. Like the case in IMC, I noticed that the doctor started avoiding Zainab during ward rounds and consultations, so also his team members, but still, that didn’t give me the inkling that Zainab was helpless and was at the verge of leaving me, until about 10 days after the transplant when she started having high temperature, inflamed throat that she couldn’t swallow her own saliva, vomiting, body coldness and consistent Hiccups. Still, I was hopeful until she developed breathing difficulty and was rushed to ICU.
When I went to see her at the ICU, I was shocked. For the first time in the two years Zainab battled intense cancer, I realized something that hadn’t registered before – ‘The Severity of Hodgin Lymphoma’. Seeing her on life support machine really demoralized and saddened me and broke my heart. She had different types drip conduits attached to her body, while she was suctioned in the mouth intermittently. At this point, verbal communication between us was barred. When in need of help,she wrote. Gradually, she became weaker and stopped writing, then succumbed to demonstrating with her hand to indicate either yes or no. Eventually, she stopped, then we could only stare at each other and in Allah’s Name; her eyes closed too.
Still, I had hope. I still believed that the dialysis, insulin injections, platelets, plasma and blood infused in her will not go for nothing. I prayed fervently to God to spare her for having suffered almost all her life and for being my only daughter. She stayed in the intensive care unit (ICU) for six days, each day with a new case of high creatinine, high blood pressure, high level of sugar, and lastly, she developed thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpa (TTP), which is a rare blood disorder.
Night of the sixth day, when her donor brother was leaving us back to Nigeria, he was allowed to enter the ICU to bid her good bye 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 u 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 in ICU, May 7, 2015, as I entered the ICU in the morning, one of the doctors immediately held my hand and 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”.
I walked into her cubicle, sat by her side, crying, praying and reciting the kalimatu Shahada. God was my only hope at that moment. Another doctor called my attention, “Sorry ma’am, from reading of the machine, your daughter has few minutes left. Better call your People in Nigeria to decide where you want to bury her”. 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 Nizamundin Masjid Grave Yard, New Delhi.
In all, we her family are forever grateful for the love, care, support, visits and prayers she received from the public. It really made Zainab a star in sickness. She really appreciated and prayed Allah to reward everyone abundantly, though she felt bad that she couldn’t reply the numerous tweets, text and whatsApp messages.
To this end, I pray for Allah’s mercy on Zainab and her aunt and namesake, Zainab Jamaare, who also lost the battle to Lymphoma at the age of 22 in 1985. Special prayers to Zainab’s sick mates, who also lost the battle to different types of cancer like, Nana Saad, Bello Sani, Fatima Dangote, Umar Lugga, Hadiza Umar, Amina Nahuce, Kassim Abba Aliyu, Yelwa Bature, Khadija Imam and Aisha Kollere, who just lost the battle two weeks ago. May their souls rest in peace, ameen.
My love goes to Hadiza Kere and little Khadija Lawal for surviving Lymphoma.
To all cancer patients, KEEP FIGHTING HARD.
Mrs. Aliyu writes via [email protected]