Heart in Hand

The six-surgery journey of Stephen Okeyo

by Michael Van Denend '78
Summer 2011

Stephen Okeyo sits at the kitchen table of Barbara and Godwin Okonkwo, his good friends in Ann Arbor, Mich. His hands are in his lap. There’s a cup of tea off to the side. But the center of attention, directly in front of him, is a Bible.

He’s been doing a lot of Bible reading and studying these days, and he has a lot of time to do so. In December, Okeyo received a new heart.

He remains in awe of what has happened to him over the last two years. As he recovers from a surgery that would be unheard of in his home country of Kenya, he says he has been led to one main response.

“I want to become more Christlike,” the soft-spoken 24-year-old said. “I am acquainting myself with the scriptures more deeply, these words of grace and faith.

“I want to use this opportunity to the maximum.”

Okeyo’s journey began as he started Calvin College in September of 2008. He heard about Calvin first from his brother’s financé who had a relative attend the college.

He was eager to attend this Christ-centered college in the United States, and through the help of family and Calvin staff, he made his way to Grand Rapids. Okeyo was off to an exciting start. Campus life was enjoyable and he was thinking about continuing his studies in accounting. Then, he noticed a marked change in his health.

“As it began to get cold, there was a difference in me,” he said. “I became very tired. I started to sleep in a chair because laying flat produced a drowning sensation. I was on third-floor Bolt [Hall], so I had to rest as I went up each flight of stairs. I knew something was wrong.”

Okeyo made it through his first semester and the January interim, stopping in at the health center on campus a number of times. His condition worsened as second semester began in February.

“I was starting to have chest pains along with the breathing difficulty,” he recalled. “At first, there was thought of an infectious disease, because I had a low-grade fever almost all of the time. No one knew for certain.”

One day a friend found Okeyo struggling for air and burning hot. He was rushed to the emergency room at Blodgett Hospital and then on to the Meijer Heart Center in downtown Grand Rapids. His breathing was labored and painful as his body began to experience septic shock and cardiac arrest.

“The medical people did what they could to stabilize me while they contacted the Cleveland clinic for more advanced care. One of the doctors said there was a concern about me surviving the flight,” he said.

Okeyo did survive the flight, but he barely survived the surgeries. Doctors discovered a mitral valve leakage in his heart, causing a psuedoaneurysm. An initial surgery to repair the damage was unsuccessful; Okeyo’s heart ruptured, leading to a cardiac arrest. He was resuscitated with heart massage while a second surgery was performed. There were worries about brain injury and nerve damage.

Calvin alum Matt Evenhouse ’95, a doctor who had been previously affiliated with Cleveland Clinic, kept up with Okeyo’s dire situation along with some of Okeyo’s Calvin friends who came to give support.

“I know how doctors think,” said Evenhouse. “In a situation such as Stephen’s, if the patient does not show improvement soon, custodial care is prescribed. I advised Stephen’s friends about the protocols, and they really helped the doctors see that there was improvement.”

Okeyo was not responding because his brain was not processing the doctors’ English-spoken commands. At that time, his brain had reverted back to hearing only Swahili.

“These friends knew Stephen and were sure he understood more than the doctors thought. They were able to get an interpreter into the room, and it was immediately clear Okeyo was further along in his recovery. This was truly exceptional. Their faith was huge,” said Evenhouse. “Stephen’s recovery blew everybody away.”

Obviously, Okeyo was not fully aware of all that was done in Cleveland. But a vision he received during that time has never left him.

“This was a significant point in my life,” he said. “I would describe it as spiritual. It did not occur to me to ask God ‘Why?’ during these days, but I did ask God, ‘Will I live?’ I remember the answer very clearly that, yes, I was going to live, and this gave me great comfort and strengthened my faith.

“I feel very indebted to the Calvin staff,” said Okeyo. “All of them really helped me.”

The medical staff at Michigan ran numerous tests, and they speculated that Stephen would require a heart transplant. Cardiac surgeon Dr. Francis Pagani wanted to try to repair Okeyo’s heart one more time. Surgery number four. As another recovery period ensued, Michelle Machiele, the wife of Calvin grad Paul Machiele ’84, became aware of Okeyo’s case and wondered if someone in her congregation (Ann Arbor Christian Reformed Church) could extend Okeyo some local hospitality by allowing him to recover near the university.

Calvin alumna Barb Postma Okonkwo ’67 and her husband, Godwin, stepped forward, and their home has become Okeyo’s home in Ann Arbor ever since.

“Michelle thought Stephen might welcome a visit from a fellow African. Godwin agreed to visit Stephen and did so almost daily,” said Barb. “When it was time for Stephen to be discharged, we knew he would be going home on IV antibiotics. It did not seem wise for Stephen to go back to Calvin and to be far from his doctors here.

“As a home care RN, I teach family members how to administer IV meds at home all the time. We offered to have him stay with us, and I would teach my husband, who is retired, to give the IV medications when I was not at home. Stephen agreed to this and we became his ‘family.’”
 
Six weeks later, Okeyo was back at Calvin for summer sessions, but a check of a sore leg revealed an aneurysm there—and further tests showed that the heart patches were again coming loose. Back to the University of Michigan and Dr. Pagani for surgery number five.

On long-term antibiotics, Okeyo returned to Calvin once more and began to start fall semester classes. And, yet again, he began feeling a loss of energy and a heart that would race at times.

“I went to the Broene Counseling Center because I thought I was depressed,” he said. “I thought this latest bout was in my head, but it wasn’t.”

Associate chaplain Nate Bradford ’00 drove Okeyo back to Ann Arbor, where more tests ensued. This time, it appeared that a transplant was the only remaining recourse. That option was challenging for many reasons, including the fact that he had been out of school for so long that visa problems and insurance coverage limits were adding to the stress of his heart condition.

Dedicated Calvin staff members and generous doctors and administrators at the University of Michigan negotiated the many hurdles blocking Okeyo’s path. Now they had to wait for a heart.

“I am so grateful for the Calvin community, and I thank God for the doctors. Everyone expedited my case,” said Okeyo.

His heart was deteriorating by the day as he waited for a donor heart.  On a Friday evening, his heart finally gave out and again he was at death’s door.  

“My breathing was difficult, and I was put on nitric oxide,” he recalled.  “My heart was literally tearing apart as the sutured mitral valve was pulling out of place. I can vividly remember a moment of extreme discomfort, gasping for breath, when one of the doctors came in with the news that a possible heart was available and that they were running tests to see if it was compatible.”
 
He arrested and was brought back. Everything went dark.

When Okeyo woke up, he did not know what had happened to him. Not only did he survive yet another heart surgery, but the right donor heart was ready at the exact time his oft-wounded heart finally gave out.

“Dr. Pagani came into my room. I asked him what had been done, and he said to me, ‘Young man, you are very lucky.’ He didn’t know that all of this was a miracle,” said Okeyo.

After six heart surgeries, Okeyo says that at last his heart feels “peaceful.” He had weekly and then bi-weekly checkups. Everything looks to be healing perfectly. His mother, Philly, has been able to come to the U.S. and spend time with her son at the Okonkwos.

It is his goal to be back at Calvin for summer school sessions and fall semester.

“All of this is working together for something greater in my life,” he said. “I find it a blessing to go through this, and the fact that my attitude has been positive is only because God’s grace has been available.”

He has met many people along this incredible path and hopes that they have in some way been blessed as he has been.

He thinks of fellow student Amanda Hoffmeyer ’10, who organized a run for Okeyo’s health care costs—RUN4OKEYO—inspired by the many heart procedures she also had to endure. And there are the Calvin staff members, alumni and friends who have worked many hours on complicated medical, visa and insurance issues.

“This has all been very humbling,” he softly said.

“What has impressed us most about God’s story through Stephen is how we are witnesses to God at work,” said Barb Okonkwo. “Woven all the way through this thing is evidence of how God has provided just the right person or place for Stephen at just the right time. None of this is coincidence.”

Bradford has been Okeyo’s campus ministries contact through this lengthy journey. He is amazed at the spiritual resilience of this young man.

"The way Stephen talks about God’s mighty power is striking,” said Bradford. “He says that everything that happened to him did so to reveal God’s love and glory. Most people would not have the confidence and the courage to handle so many daunting surgeries.”

International student adviser Linda Bosch ’73 agreed.

“I have been involved with Stephen’s case from the very beginning, and I have been amazed over and over and over again at how God has opened doors to provide for his every need,” Bosch said. “And through all the many ups, downs and turns, Stephen faced everything with an unwavering faith and positive attitude. He never complained. He seldom seemed down or fearful or worried or upset, but instead faced it all with his warm smile.”

Okeyo began his Calvin academic career looking at accounting. He may still pursue that profession, but said, “I don’t see myself sitting in an office anymore. I need to be more of a public speaker, making sure I am influencing the lives of others. People need to know God is real.”

It is not lost on Okeyo that Calvin College’s seal contains the picture of a heart in a hand.

He repeated the words of the college motto—“My heart I offer”—and concluded, “I take this as God’s sign that I was called to be here. This is His call to me.”