Oxford Brookes University (OBU) has awarded an Honorary Doctorate (HonDUniv) to Dr Zipporah Ali, Executive Director of Kenya Hospices and Palliative Care Association (KEHPCA) in a graduation ceremony held at the university in the UK.

She was among six leading figures from the worlds of medicine, motorsport, healthcare and business, and the only one from Africa, who received the award from OBU, one of UK’s leading modern universities that enjoys an international reputation for teaching excellence and innovation.

OBU’s Associate Dean Dr Rob Wondrak said that Dr Ali has made a significant contribution to the education and training of health care professionals from Kenya and neighbouring countries in Africa.

“She is an extensive lobbyist for the development, advocacy and public awareness of palliative care in Kenya.” Dr Wondrak said.

He said that under Dr Ali’s leadership, KEHPCA was awarded the Red Ribbon Award in 2012, for work conducted within the community to improve the quality of lives of those living with cancer and HIV/AIDS, a message reiterated by OBU’s Vice Chancellor Professor Janet Beer.

A marker of her success, Dr Wondrak said, is that the Ministry of Health in Kenya has started to integrate palliative care into the government hospital services and the number of centres and hospices in the country have steadily increased.

“She remains a member of the teaching team within the OBU-Nairobi Hospice Higher Diploma programme.”

Presenting the award, OBU’s Vice Chancellor Professor Beer said that Dr Ali is an illustration of graduates from the university who have used their knowledge to promote not only her well being as an individual, that of the society as a whole.

“Your degree leaves you in a stronger place to make small or, should you wish, large changes to the society in which you live.” Professor Beer told the graduands.

She said that Dr Ali is an alumnus of the University and has for a long time been associated with the Oxford Brookes palliative care programme at the Nairobi Hospice.

“She was one of the first students to complete the course we run in partnership with the first hospice in the city (Nairobi). She has been driven by her own experience of watching her brother suffer and die from cancer, to become an active campaigner for the benefits of palliative care and in particular the importance of ensuring more people have a dignified end of life.” She said.

In her acceptance speech, Dr Ali said that the greatest honor she has had in her life is the privilege to work with patients and their loved ones.

“I receive this honour on behalf of them as well as the health care professionals who strive to ensure that those living with life threatening illnesses have access to good quality palliative care.” She said.

Dr Ali sincerely regarded the honour not only as a recognition of her work, but also as recognition of the work of her colleagues in Kenya and other parts of the world who have supported the work that she does.

“What this award symbolizes is the growth and evolution of hospice and palliative care in Kenya as well as many other countries across the world.” She said.

She said that twenty seven years ago when she received her first degree in medicine, she had no idea what palliative care was, it was not in the curriculum of medical training. As a young doctor, she felt very inadequate when taking care of patients living with diseases that could not be cured; of taking care of patients who were dying.

In 1991, Dr Ali lost her 33 year old brother to cancer, and she was not able to give him the care that he should have received because of lack of knowledge and skills.

“I realized that colleagues that I worked with were also not well prepared to take care of dying patients. I knew I had to do something.” She said.

She has not regretted a single day of her career since then. “It has been an honor and a humbling experience to work towards changing the way patients and their families are treated at a most critical time, when cure is no longer possible; at a time when they need our support most, a time when most doctors will say ‘there is nothing more we can do for you’, condemning patients to a lot of suffering and pain. Yet, there is a lot we can do to improve these patients’ quality of life; to support their loved ones, and, to ensure that they live a dignified life, without pain and suffering and that, if and when death occurs, it is remembered as a ‘good and dignified death’.  We should focus on “adding life into their days, and not just adding days into their lives’.” She said.

Dr Ali said that without good health, we cannot easily share in loving relationships with our families and friends, fully participate in our chosen work, and contribute meaningfully to our communities among other things. And that is why health is every one’s business.

“Each and every one of us has a role to play in our own as well as others well being. All sectors and government departments must work together to improve the health of the population. It is in everyone’s interest to improve health and well-being.” She said.

To make a real difference, Dr Ali said that departments, practitioners, policy makers and the community and voluntary sector must work together.

To the graduands, Dr Ali had a message for them, “You are part of the team that can contribute to a healthy nation, each one of you playing their role. Remember that caring for patients is a privilege.  We are allowed to go into the secret place of caring for the patients and families. We need to respect this and treat our patients with respect and love.”

“Patients are not difficult people, but people with difficult problems; patients are not bed numbers or diseases; they are people with names and a history.”

“As you go out into the field, remember, there are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it. I believe we all can be both.” She added.

“I wish to sincerely thank those who have supported and mentored me throughout my palliative care career. I would have loved to mention each and every one of them. Their dedication and support is highly appreciated.” She said.

She also sincerely thanked The Vice Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, Prof. Janet Beer and Dr. Rob Wondrak for this opportunity and for the support they have continuously given to Kenya.

Dr Ali is a Board Member of the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care (IAHPC), International Children’s Palliative Care Network (ICPCN), Hope for Cancer Kids (HCK) and the Worldwide Palliative Care Alliance among others.

She holds a MD from Ege University in Turkey, A master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Nairobi and a Higher Diploma in Palliative Care from Oxford Brookes University.

Dr. Ali is an International Fellow with the International Pain Policy Study Group at the University of Wisconsin, as well as a Fellow with the Palliative Care Leadership Development Initiative at the Institute of Palliative Medicine, San Diego.