Morgue attendants who defied the Covid wave

When Paul Kithuku Musembi, a mortician in Kericho County received several bodies at the Lazarus Funeral home situated along the Kericho-Nakuru highway at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 he did not know that his life was hanging on a prespice as he was later to learn that the deceased had been infected with the deadly Covid-19 virus and chances of dying from the deadly fire while on the line of duty were very high.

However Musembi has defied the killer viral infection to tell the story. The mortician who is in charge of the Lazarus Funeral home says that for the last 25 years he has done the job with passion and has been away from his home county of Kitui to make a living out of this job which most people abhor.

In an interview with KNA at the funeral facility, Musembi, 50, says in the two and a half decades he has worked as a morgue attendant, the challenging period in his career was during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic when he prepared over 200 bodies for the burial of the deceased persons.

He revealed that his first response together with his female assistant Ms Dorothy Chelangat during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic was to remain calm and after all they were adhering to the Ministry of Health (MOH) protocols where they would always put on personal protective equipment (PPP), N95 face masks, disposable hand gloves, head gear, appropriate safety glasses for eye protection and practice strict hygiene measures each time they would handle a body infected with Covid-19 to reduce the risk of getting infected.

“My first body to receive was around the third week in March 2020 and the deceased, a woman had passed on from the covid virus. I knew chances of contracting the deadly virus were very high after receiving information from the hospital administration that the deceased cause of death was Covid-19.

I consoled myself that since I had maintained all the MOH guidelines set for mortuaries I had nothing to worry about. I later went for a random check up to detect if I had contracted corona virus but the test turned negative. From that time until mid 2021 my assistant and I prepared over 200 bodies that had been infected with the deadly corona virus.“ said Musembi.

The first confirmed case of the Covid-19 infection hit the country on 12 March 2020 and Musembi and his assistant has weathered the storm visited on Kenyans by the deadly disease to prepare the dead for the next ‘world’ without being distracted by stereotypes peddled by naysayers.

“For transport and storage of the bodies with many being received from sub-county hospitals across the County, we would secure the bodies in a body bag and label it ‘Covid-19-Handle with care’ in addition we avoided unnecessary manipulation of the body to avoid risks of air getting expelled from the lungs. We cleaned all surfaces and equipment regularly and thoroughly with disinfectants,” he revealed.

The mortician added that family viewing of the deceased did not occur as the bodies confirmed with corona virus were placed and secured in a body bag an issue that did not go well with the loved ones but they had to adhere to the MOH guidelines to minimize the risk of transmission of the deadly virus.

Thank God while handling the Covid-19 bodies the two attendants defied Mother Nature and left the morgue unaffected by the killer virus till cases of the virus started going down.

“We just thank God that we did not get infected with this deadly virus. We indeed received the first and second doses of the Covid-19 vaccines in addition to the booster shots and we were strict in adhering to the MOH guidelines each and every time we received a body with Covid-19,” said Musembi.

Death is part of life and caring for the dead is complex and mysterious. Death and the dead are feared and revered and the sheer mention of a mortuary sends a collective shiver down the spines of many people but for Musembi, the job is a calling and just not a job like any other.

He reveals that as fate would have it he started out as a cleaner at Coast General Mombasa mortuary in 1997 and he got to interact with the mortuary attendants.

He adds that he would see many bodies being brought to the mortuary from the wards where the people died either as a result of disasters, road traffic accidents, diseases, old age and would help them transfer the bodies to the facility.

Musembi would then get familiar with the mortuary environment and started developing an interest for the job.

“First time to handle a body was in 1997 for a man who had passed on from a terminal illness while undergoing treatment at Coast General Mombasa mortuary. I did not see any challenge after all I did not have any relatives to support me and I was far from home. I saw this as a job like any other. Later on after undergoing training within a week I got used to the task.” said Musembi.

A job opening arose at the morgue and Musembi opted to take the position adding that he was driven by passion and he felt competent enough to work at the facility that would receive close to 70 bodies in a day.

“At the time most of the bodies we would receive at the mortuary were from neighboring counties. I would wake up as early as 5am and together with two of my colleagues we would prepare the bodies for the loved ones to receive them from 9am and by 2pm we are done with our work. I really loved what I did and my satisfaction was seeing the bereaved families thanking me for the good job I did for their loved ones. In a day we would release close to 70 bodies to their families for burial. “he added.

I stopped working at Coast General Hospital in 2000 after I was dismissed and in 2002 I came to Kericho and got employed at Lazarus funeral home he reveals.

Being a mortuary attendant, Musembi together with his assistant on a daily basis they receive bodies at the morgue, label them properly for identification, clean the bodies and prepare them for preservation ensuring the bodies are properly stored in the refrigerator. In a month the Lazarus funeral home handles an average of 80 to 100 bodies.

He also prepares the bodies for postmortem and he works hand in hand with the pathologist and takes the body back for preservation after the procedure. In addition he documents the necessary paperwork to receive and release the body to family members.

Musembi says he is married and blessed with three children who all support his job and says he has never experienced nightmares or engaged in drugs or alcohol abuse which is a myth that people working in mortuaries work under influence of drugs

. He adds that when he is outside the morgue he forgets everything that happened that day and concentrates on his family.

“In my over 20 years I have worked here I am yet to see a ghost or experience nightmares. This job requires one to be always sober. I wake up around 5.45am and before 8am iam at my work place. This job has helped me educate my three children as well as develop my home.” said Musembi.

His assistant Chelangat who has a two year experience at the job revealed that Musembi has been encouraging her while attending to the bodies and is grateful that the job is now a passion while in the same breadth she challenges young people to stop shying away from the career because of misconceptions.

“This is a job like any other and I advice the youth not to be too selective in career choice instead of engaging in activities that ruin their lives after becoming desperate to get a job.” said Chelangat.



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