• ashirk@gmail.com
  • Kijabe, Kenya
On Building a Cancer Center

On Building a Cancer Center

It’s been forever since I shared an update, following is some of what I’ve been up to over the past months.  

Our big year-end project for Friends of Kijabe was to fundraise in order to renovate a building that had previously been used for palliative care.

There were multiple constraints.  We had just finished another  major building (the Energy Center) and needed to repay $80,000 to our endowment.  There had been years of discussion about scope – should we do the bare minimum or go all-out?  Some of our major donors had already made significant contributions early in the year, so much of the funding would need to come from new avenues.  

Arianna (at the time she was head of inpatient medicine and oncology) and Chege (Kijabe CEO) thought the time was right and I agreed to help, not sure if was realistic within our time frame – two months to go until the end of the year.  

The first turning point was the name.  What exactly were we building?  It seemed more than a space for oncology and palliative care.  What about the pathologists who read biopsies, or surgeons who resect tumors, or inpatient doctors who cover admitted cancer patients?  As I zoomed out, it became clear that nearly every clinician in Kijabe touches cancer care in some way.  So, I asked permission to call the project Kijabe Cancer Center. Instantly there was buy-in from all over the hospital.   

Second, how to tell the story?  Absolutely, we want more patients to receive chemotherapy and to save more lives in Kijabe.  But it seemed even that story was limited.  I thought about our own family – my granddaddy who died from lung cancer Arianna’s uncle Art – and multiple friends who have battled breast cancer.  The story wasn’t only be who we would help in Kijabe – it was who we would honor along the way.  We would build a cancer center in Kenya by giving in honor of our loved ones who had battled cancer around the world.  

Third, I started looking for people to talk to.  First Matt & Ansley, then Faith, Sarah, Johanna, Stephen, Britney, Rita.  We would sit down inches apart with only a go-pro camera between us and talk about the hardest and most meaningful moments of life.  We talked about faith in the face of death.  We talked about dreams for Kijabe and how God has provided for us.  We connected, and shared stories of  connection with folks around the world.  

People started to give.  First some dear friends who surely scared their investment broker when they told him how much they wanted to donate.  A businessman had a friend who had been rushed to Kijabe after a near-fatal accident – he gave an amazing gift.  People donated in honor of friends and family members. Our Kijabe Oncologists all gave – that was huge!  Our home church in Birmingham made an amazing pledge. Bit by bit the funds came in. . .more than 75 individuals and families. 


In retrospect it seems so obvious that it was almost scripted.  Arianna would say, “I told you it was possible!” 

But in the actual moments, the outcome felt far from certain.  I didn’t sleep well for the two months to the end of the year. Not only was I making promises, I was making promises on behalf of our loved ones, that seemed heavy.  I knew I would really need help, but wasn’t sure where it would come from.  Thankfully help did arrive, in amazing ways!  

Even better than the funding was the cancer conversations.  Talking to friends who had about the faith and courage of their loved ones as they walked through the cancer journey was very special.

It was not easy for people to share, and many were talking publicly about their cancer experience for the first time, but there was an amazing aspect of leadership for those I interviewed.  We shared tears, memories, and created a group of stories I am very proud of.  

If you want to watch any of the interviews, you can find them all here http://friendsofkijabe.org/cancercenter or several of my favorites are below.

The lower floor of the Medical Education building is being renovated, which means digging out 2 meter footings in the center of the building to add structural support without compromising the rest of the building above. Then walls and the rest of the space can be reconfigured to provide for chemotherapy treatment spaces, clinics, support groups, labs, and all of the other parts of creating a cancer center!