‘We can really take care of each other in this town’
By Stacey Shackford
SIMON WHEELER / Staff Photo:The Okumu family are finally back in Ithaca after delays while recovering from injuries sustained in a June 20th automobile crash in Kenya that killed Nancy Okumu, Ben’s wife and the mother of their four children. From left, Fiona, 10, Brian 14, Ken’s brother Geoffrey Okumu who is visiting from Kenya to help, Ken Okumu, Elvis, 17, and Registered Nurse Carolyne Khamasi holding Esther, 5.
If Nancy Okumu could gather her family up in a great big hug, tend to their myriad wounds and send them off with smiles, she surely would.
But the mother of four was there in spirit only as her broken brood descended into Ithaca, still reeling from the June 22 car accident that claimed her life and changed theirs forever.
Luckily, her embrace has been replaced by the welcoming arms of the family’s adopted community, which raised more than $20,000 to bring them home.
There were cheers and tears as the Okumus arrived at Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport on Wednesday, three months after their intended return from a long-awaited trip to Kenya.
Father Ben Okumu, 42, recalled the immense relief he felt when he got the phone call from Sahara Byrne, whose daughter Bella is a close friend of his 10-year-old, Fiona.
Confined to bed in an overcrowded Kenyan hospital, his shattered leg lifted in traction, all he could do was worry and wait, helpless to fix a situation quickly spiraling out of control, physically, financially and emotionally.
“You can’t imagine lying there, having lost your wife, running low on funds, not knowing how this thing is going to work out,” he said. “And then Sahara calls and tells me the amount of contributions that were coming. It was very touching.”
An environmental economist, Ben is a consultant who does work for the United Nations, trying to apply computer models he developed as a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University for use by agencies like the World Wildlife Federation to promote environmental conservation while stimulating economic development in third-world countries.
He was meant to start field work in Mexico in August, and had moved his family to a temporary home in Texas in January, while still keeping the Ithaca property they had called home for 10 years. They decided to take advantage of the summer break for a trip to Kenya.
Ben had not been back to his homeland in six years, and the children in 10. Five-year-old Esther had never been there, and did not know her grandparents or other relatives.
Not trusting himself to drive on the left side of the road with a manual transmission car, Ben hired a local driver. About a week and a half into their trip, they left at 6:30 a.m. to make the 300-mile drive to his parents’ village. They made it 100 miles.
Ben nodded off and woke up in hospital about 10 hours later, vomiting blood, his blue suit being cut from his body and his concussed mind muddled in a pain-induced haze.
“I have no memory at all about how it came to be,” Ben said.
His left femur was shattered, the foot pierced through by metal. His right arm hung limp by his side, broken at the shoulder, and his tongue was bitten through when his head hit the dashboard.
Emergency surgery was performed, but he lost so much blood that he spent nearly a month in traction before he was stable enough to undergo further operations. He had another setback when he contracted malaria from a blood transfusion.
“To me it didn’t really matter; I just wanted to make sure the kids were well taken care of,” he said.
While Esther emerged unscathed, 14-year-old Brian dislocated one of the lumbar in his spine and 17-year-old Elvis suffered broken femurs. Fiona had to undergo multiple operations on her legs, and subsequent infections led to fears one of them might have to be amputated.
Ben hardly had time to mourn. His first trip upon release from the hospital was to the morgue where Nancy was being kept, 200 miles away. She, too, had hit her head in the accident. All her ribs had been broken and they punctured her lungs, which led to fatal internal bleeding.
“When I saw her, I took consolation in the fact that her death had been fast,” he said. “Even if she had survived I don’t think she would have had a comfortable life.”
He’s still uncertain as to what happened that day other than the Peugeot 405 veered off the road and smashed into a wall. Nor does he know what became of the driver, who suffered injuries similar to Ben’s.
“All I know is that I have suffered a big loss, and it will take me a long time to recover, if I ever do. Losing a wife of 20 years is not something you can just get over. She is a part of you, and while she is gone, a part of me is dead,” Ben Okumu said.
He said Nancy was a loving, sacrificing woman who put her own career on hold to support him as the family hopped from England to Ethiopia, Cornell and Columbia so he could pursue his research. Only recently was she able to return to school, enrolling in the nursing program at Tompkins Cortland Community College.
“It’s not easy to forget a person of that caliber,” he said.
Her funeral was an emotional one. Elvis delivered a eulogy in which he promised to carry on her legacy. But the reality of the occasion didn’t sink in for Fiona until halfway through the ceremony, when she started weeping and asked to see her mother for one final time. She couldn’t reach the coffin by wheelchair, so she was placed on a mattress and taken there.
“They opened the coffin and she looked at her mom. From that moment on, she stopped crying,” Ben said.
Ben is undeniably proud of his children. Given the opportunity, he will gladly brag about Elvis’s prowess in the pool, Brian’s math skills, Fiona’s strength of character and Esther’s singing talents. He said they have done incredibly well so far, and he is determined to remain strong for their benefit.
“I am like their compass. They look at me and if they see I am happy and smiling, they think everything is all right,” he said. “It would be a lie for me to say that we are out of the woods yet, but I believe we are in the process.”
He is eager to start earning an income again and needs to do so as soon as possible to cover what could soon become a mounting debt, but currently he cannot walk and can barely type.
Savings the Okumus set aside before the trip were quickly depleted by the medical expenses, and Ben found out too late that his health insurance did not cover any injuries sustained abroad.
Those injuries are now considered “pre-existing conditions,” so their treatment may not be covered now that they have returned. The rod in Ben’s shoulder has shifted and must be replaced. With the exception of Esther, all are also facing physiotherapy and extensive dental treatment.
“You wonder if there’s anything better you could have done. But I don’t think so. I think it’s just bad luck,” he said. “God had a purpose when he spared me. He could have taken me too, but he had mercy. He left one of us to live. I don’t see how the children would have come back without one of us. ”
Ben said he will be eternally grateful to all who sent contributions and those who helped in other ways after reading about his plight last month in the Ithaca Journal.
The family was greeted at the airport by staff from the Franziska Racker Center, who helped them into a special disability van provided by Cornell University. They were then transported to the Homewood Suites, which is putting them up at a discounted rate while their Maplewood Drive home is outfitted for their return, with help from the Finger Lakes Independence Center.
Not only does the home have to be made wheelchair accessible, it will have to accommodate Ben’s brother Geoffrey and a nurse who accompanied them from Kenya. Many of their belongings are in Texas or in storage. While readying the home, it was discovered the furnace had failed, necessitating a costly repair.
“Everyone that we have ever asked for help has gone so far out of their way to help them. In these hard economic times, without question, people gave more than they could, and more than what you could ever expect,”Byrne said.
Byrne said several medical providers have offered their services, including orthopedic surgeon Stephanie Roach and physical therapy practice McCune and Ainslie.
“If there is anything good that has come out of this, it’s seeing that we can really take care of each other in this town,” Byrne said. “I don’t think it would have happened anywhere else but Ithaca.”
Additional Facts How to help
Donations, made out to the “Okumu Family Fund” are still being collected at all Tompkins Trust Company branch locations, or through the mail at:
Tompkins Trust Company
c/o Sue Lason
PO Box 460, Ithaca, 14850