Profiles

Noelle Orata’s secret to self-actualising at 40


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Dr Noelle Orata, the Chairperson of the Kenya Association of Clinical Pathologists. PHOTO | BONFACE BOGITA | NMG

Although with Dr Noelle Orata you get the impression that everything in her life circles back to health and medicine, she’s also quick to add that “family is the only glass ball I can’t drop.”

Everything else – these rubber balls – can be dropped and picked. And she has several of those in the air.

She’s the current Chairperson of the Kenya Association of Clinical Pathologists (KACP), a Trustee and member of Faraja Cancer Support Trust, Chairperson of the Children Sickle Cell Foundation, and the head of the department of pathology in a university that she can’t mention for reasons we can’t get into today.

She also belongs to an informal group called Amorphous Doctors. These are a clutch of doctors not in clinical practice who meet off and online to hold erudite conversations around health, more like a medical underground medical group – without stethoscopes.

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Why did you want to become a pathologist?

The innocence of childhood. As a child, I wondered why Nairobi Hospital wasn’t in the village? And the idea of people dying didn’t make sense. I recall walking into the blood bank in one of these private hospitals when I was in high school for a stint, and you know how most people are squeamish around blood? I wasn’t. I thought it was excellent. I loved the lab. I love what was happening there. It made sense. In medical school, I enjoyed learning about how a healthy body works vis-à-vis a diseased one. I think in pictures, and pathology is a lot of pictures.

You have all these balls in the air; what do you struggle with?

That’s a good one. I’m married with three children aged 14, six, and two. I’m struggling with this work-life harmony. I refuse to call it work-life balance because I believe that’s an illusion. [Chuckle] There’s nothing you can balance. Something is always taking precedence over the other. But my family is a glass ball; it’s the one thing I can’t drop.

Everything else I can drop, they’re rubber balls. So, I’ll pick it up where it bounces off and continue from there. I’m with my children every weekend, and I have this big community helping me raise them when I’m travelling because often work takes precedence; late nights, doing meetings, then, you know, I’m not as available for them. But I realise it’s seasonal. Once it’s over, I will move into another one.

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Dr Noelle Orata during the interview on June 20, 2023. PHOTO | BONFACE BOGITA | NMG

Have you always thought that it’s harmony, not balance?

Uh, yes. I’ve always thought about it like that. I already had a family when I went to do my postgraduate, which was very time-consuming. I remember saying to myself, “You know what? I must power through this because it will change my life later.” I had a conversation with my sister, God bless her heart, and my mom.

My mom is a quiet powerhouse, and my dad is the most progressive male ally I know. He said, “Just do what you have to do. We’ll support you. And once you come up for air, after you finish that, then you pick it up from there.” Yeah. So, my motto is to do what you do now and do what you must do later.

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What kind of childhood did you have?

An okay one. There was no drama. [Laughs]. My parents were present. They were both bankers. We lived in Buru Buru, Nairobi, and then moved to Kilimani. I went to Kianda School from Standard One to high school and then to medical school. I have three younger sisters. I credit my parents for who I am. Someone said if you want to know about people, get a video and play their childhood. It’ll explain their adulthood. Mine was a  quiet childhood.

What are you currently working toward?

I worry about our healthcare system, you know, the way it’s built and structured. Devolution is great, but the transition wasn’t well managed. Everything I do is within the healthcare space because it comes easy to me and makes the most sense, so I intend to open something in that regard in the next 10 years or so. I’m currently doing my homework.

Is this thing a secret?

[Laughs] For now, yes.

What’s the most exciting thing that has happened to you lately?

That’s a good one. Wow. [Long pause] Watching my two-year-old grow so fast. Last week, he couldn’t construct a sentence, and this week he’s putting it together. I love that because I was in school for my two older ones, so I never had time to see these little milestones. It’s a joy seeing this, but I’m also learning from him, like how to be fearless.

Has motherhood revealed anything interesting about you?

Absolutely. I wasn’t always as extroverted as I am now. It has made me more reflective because, you know, motherhood is one constant state of anxiety. You’re constantly worrying about your children. But now I’m less worried, and more thoughtful.

Have you thought about what happens when the children all go?

Oh, we’ll be fine. My husband and I are great friends. (Laughter). We have a lot of conversations. When they go, I hope that by then, we will have given them enough to stand on their own feet.

What don’t you want them to learn from you?

[Long pause] Not to be arrogant sometimes or self-centred. Sometimes you go into that state to shield yourself from the world.

Which state?

Of being self-centred and arrogant. It’s a protective mechanism. The thing with women sometimes is that when you say what you mean, it can easily be perceived as arrogance. If a man said the same thing, it’s taken as something totally different, like confidence. I’m not overtly aware of gender dynamics in my field of work, but I am aware that when I walk into certain rooms, I see more men than women, and that shifts conversations. But I also have to add that these men are our allies.

What do you tell your grandmother you do?

(Laughs) That’s a strange one. [Pause] I just tell them I’m a doctor. Which I am.

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As a pathologist, you have dealt with death and cadavers. What do you think happens when people die?

[Pause] That’s a very vast conversation, but I think your hearing is the last sense you lose when you die or are dying. I read that in some studies.

I really don’t know. But I know human beings are very dynamic.

Do you fear death?

I fear leaving my children behind. Will they be okay? Of course, my husband is capable, but he can’t care for them. A mother’s care is much different than a father’s. I fear them not having their mother.

If there is an afterlife, will you come back as a doctor?

I will come back as a doctor who designs hospitals and an architect.  Growing up, I lost my artsy side and became very science-minded.  I like the idea of designing hospitals.  Remember how the hospitals in the village were built on massive, sprawling land, a colonial build?  The wards were far from everything.  Now they put up 600-bed hospitals on one acre of land. 

It fascinates me how they do the piping for oxygen, for instance.  What material do we use on the floor so doctors don’t slide and fall down?  What are the considerations on windows, corridors, and open spaces, and how do they all come together in functionality and aesthetics?

What’s the most underrated part of the human body?

I think the nose. I want you to picture a face without ears or eyes. Now picture a face without a nose.

You turned 40 this year, was approaching 40 fraught with anxiety?

No. I’m beginning to be aware of this thing called self-actualisation. I don’t worry about certain things that bothered me when I was younger. I don’t care for certain people who were a big deal when I was younger. I now say things as they are. I can have difficult conversations without necessarily offending the other person.

I’m able to sit through difficult conversations about myself. I feel all these are part of transcending to the next space. I’m enjoying leadership in health, and interacting with my colleagues, who are all astounding people doing great things in this space. There’s a group called the Amorphous Doctors who are not practicing clinically, but the amount of work they do is mind-boggling.

Do you have any closing thoughts?

I want to give permission to other women to be. A lot of us don’t have permission to speak, to be and do what we want to do. I want to give them permission to speak up, and be what they want.

Who gave you permission to be?

My parents. They never stifled me. If I wanted to do something, they were like, “Okay, go ahead”. My dad used to be very categorical that while I do as I want,  there are consequences. “Just make sure you know the consequences, but go for it,”he’d always say.  My mom and my sisters would be my cheerleaders in the background.

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