These days in her Chicago apartment that she shares with her young son, Emeka, Pamela Mojekwu stares through the windows, watching the early morning sunrise streak into her living room, reminding her of another gracious day to be thankful and hopeful. Her heart has deep scars of tragedies, her face lights up from the beams of the sunrise, with a promise of better days ahead. In her 59th year, she’s still running against the winds of life, living, but in control of her speed in this race.
“I have learnt to get to my treasured destiny at my own time. You can’t hurry sunrise anymore: not with what life privileged me these years.”
“Jebose, when life deals you lemon, you learn fast how to make lemonade. Life certainly dealt me with tragic circumstances within the past decade and these situations taught me how to make the lemonades of life: Life is bittersweet”.
Mojekwu was Nigeria’s first celebrated aerobics and fitness expert. In the eighties, she was famous with her weekly fitness columns in Nigeria’s Vanguard Newspaper, her television appearances on Lagos Television and subsequently, Morning Ride, NTA, Lagos.
She also dashingly encouraged a new generation of Nigerians then struggling with obesity to define their values, be proud of their weight, called an obese nation to action for better living through intense daily exercises. She brutalized our bodies and empowered us as she tortured us, affectionately. Mojekwu was everywhere with a new brand: Miss Keep Fit.
She was in all major networks every Saturday morning, motivating the nation with information on wellness, weight loss and fitness.
While she woke our nation to fitness exercises, she was also silently facing her own internal family health challenges: she hid these from her clients and the nation with infectious bright smiles that spread over her face every Saturday morning.
Her only child then, Tina, was very sick. Every day was great expectation with regards to Tina’s health issues: “Tina was sick. I took her to Eko Hospital. The hospital diagnosed her illness as “sicklier foot” disease. I didn’t understand what that meant: she was losing weight all the time from this strange illness. We continued with the recommended treatment for my only child and daughter then. The more we treated her, the worse her condition grew.”
During a chanced visit to Eko Hotels, she picked a magazine from the lobby and began to read as she waited for her host. Inside the magazine, she read about a Dr. Smith of Children’s Hospital in Chicago discussing about Vascular Necrosis. The symptoms he shared in the magazine were consistent with Tina’s. Mojekwu decided that evening to seek the doctor in Chicago. Few weeks later, they arrived at the children’s hospital and her daughter was diagnosed with sickle cell anaemia.
Mojekwu would abandon life to begin care management for her daughter. No mother would watch her daughter go through the rigors of sickle cell treatment and pain without a heart ache. Tina was regularly in the hospital. Her sickle cell disease was progressive and fast, weakening her immune system. Pamela described one of those scary moments watching her daughter in pains.
“America’s health system doesn’t lie to you. The doctors were blunt. They told me that her sickle cell was in advanced stages and she may not live. But she lived until that accident in 2009.”
Tina battled sickle cell disease throughout her life: most of her adult years were spent inside the emergency room of the hospital. Pamela lived these years with her in the hospital. During one of their visits to the ER, Tina went into coma and was placed on life support at the ICU. Doctors encouraged Pamela to go home and decide switching off the life support the next day. Tina miraculously woke up from her coma at midnight, cried for her mother!
The uncertainties of life began to pepper her five years ago when she lost her husband, Tina’s father, to cancer disease. Two years after losing her husband, on a humid July Sunday, Pamela and Tina honoured an invitation from her cousin to visit. She had worked all day; end of her shift, she went home and picked Tina to rendezvous with her family. After the visit, Pam and Tina began a journey back to their home. It was the last time mother and child would ride together. Something happened and she swerved her car into a ditch and crashed. It was fatal. Her only daughter who beat death few months earlier would not survive the wreck. She died on impact, at the scene of the accident. Pamela sustained serious brain injuries and collapsed lung.
“Jebose, I didn’t know to this day how the accident happened. I woke up in a hospital only to be told that the passenger with me in the vehicle died at the scene of the accident. That passenger was my only daughter. Christine was dead! Because of the severity of my injuries: collapsed lungs, broken ribs and brain injuries, I was placed in medically induced coma. I would see her in my coma stage. She was right there with me. She took me to the scene of the accident to see the wrecked car. She stayed with me until her funeral: she then appeared again and said to me: “Mom, your road will be long and hard but you will make it.”
Soon after Tina’s death, the City of Chicago arraigned her at the Cook County Court House and charged her with vehicular homicide: it alleged Pam was responsible for Tina’s death. She was thrown into jail. Life had no meaning to her: she barely remembered anything. She was suicidal. The prison officers placed her in a 23-hour solitary confinement, watching her every hour: “I was locked down for 23 hours every day, the first month. I was only allowed one hour to shower and exercise. Meals would be passed to me through a hole in the middle of my cell door. It was horrible: a mother being jailed for an auto accident that killed her only daughter, sustaining serious brain injuries that affected her memories. I was a volcano, waiting to erupt.”
Pamela Mojekwu mourned her daughter while in jail: the horrible experiences triggered depression.
“Dealing with Tina’s death, initially, was extremely difficult for me. I would stay in my bed for days, covered up, could not eat, and couldn’t bath. The experience is beyond explanation. It’s a sad feeling that words can’t capture with description. It’s a unique moment in our lives and I pray no woman buries her child, especially her sick daughter.”
Her painful ordeals redirected her new life. Through these challenges, she moved her aging mother to a nursing home for assisted living. Her mother had developed Alzheimer’s disease. Last month, one of her younger sisters died. She was buried this week.
Through rehabilitation and treatments, she is slowly recovering from the emotional traumas of her circles of life.
“Jebose, who would go through losing a husband, a daughter in an accident, brain injuries, sending your mother to a nursing home because you could no longer care for her , locked up for the death of your daughter and not be an emotional wreck? I was a disaster that happened.”
Part of life’s redirection is her new found platform for sickle cell advocacy. She has become a passionate psalm for children, especially African children affected by sickle cell. She set up a nonprofit foundation in memory of her late daughter; Christine Sickle Cell Foundation.
“It’s the best way to honor her painful times on earth. I was blessed to have her in my life. My mission now is to travel to Nigeria within the next few months and open an office where this foundation would be able to help our people through information, education and assist in providing a manageable care for those with sickle cell disease. I want to encourage everyone going through any circumstance in life or similar to mine, that it’s not over until God says otherwise. Be strong. I am strongest today, despite the tragedies.”