Editor’s Choice

Dr David Silverstein: He knew President Moi from head, shoulders, knees and toes

Of all his patients, few were as precious as Moi. The pay was a king’s ransom, opportunities endless

Priceless patients: Dr David Silverstein (left) treated Presidents, Attorney Generals, Commissioners, head of Kenya’s largest corporations and life has been good, very good. Here is with Shekar Iyer during the 2017 World Pharmacists Day.

By Camy Akinyi- Gecaga

Contributing Editor

@Undercover KE

Dr David Silverstein has seen the belly buttons, and not a few bottoms of Kenya’s most powerful, richest people: Bob Collymore, Zacchaeus Chesoni, Charles Njonjo and Daniel arap Moi who has died at 95.

Of all his patients, though, few were as precious as Baba Gideon. The pay was, and still is a king’s ransom, opportunities endless.

The retired President was recently the cause of a health scare after being admitted twice in the same week. Moi has since been discharged and there are two things which have emerged: He is either treated at the Nairobi Hospital where Dr Silverstein is based, or in Israel-a country he was fond of for curious reasons.

One, is that Moi loved Israel as the cradle of Christianity and two, from the widespread belief that Kalenjins are descendants of the ‘Wandering Jew’ of the Ancient times as British biographer, Andrew Morton informs us in Moi: The Making of an African Statesman and which was published in 1998.

Moi also believed that Israelis are the most persecuted people on earth, and Africans, the most humiliated and that combination meant they understood the African better than other nationalities.

Some of Moi’s state visits to Israel were actually medical visits and little wonder he chose Dr David Silverstein, a Jewish-American, as his personal doctor.

Other president fond of the Nairobi Hospital was founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta for whom the Executive VIP Wing was specifically modified when his 80 year old body began cracking under the vagaries of longevity in the 1970s.

Jomo Kenyatta hated flying, and only flew twice outside Kenya in his 15 year presidency: Once to the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference in London in 1964 and for a state visit to Ethiopia in the 1970s.

When Kenyatta began having heart issues, the government flew in world famous playboy cardiologist Dr Christiaan Barnard from South Africa to Kenya in May 1978. Dr Barnard, the first to perform a successful heart transplant in the world, was to insert a pacer in Kenyatta’s heart but the old lion would not have plastic in his body. Jomo Kenyatta died of natural causes five months later.

Going to South Africa for a doctor almost caused diplomatic bad blood as many countries including Kenya had no international relations with South Africa due to its Apartheid policy.

Moi worked hard and succeeded in appearing stiff

But Kenya has a special fondness for South Africa and its doctors. Retired President Mwai Kibaki is either treated at the Nairobi Hospital or is flown to London or South Africa as has been the case in the last three years.

Moi served the longest as president and was consciously a sucker for looking stately. He worked hard and succeeded in appearing stiff, unsmiling, an African chief proud of his position.

Dr Silverstein, his doctor of more than four decades, travelled with him overseas during his 24 year rule. He recalls in Moi’s memoirs how the head of state changed from a casual look of rolled up shirtsleeves, swapping stories with everyone, to a different disposition: “He brushes his hair, puts on a smart jacket and pins the presidential rose to the button hole. His bearing will stiffen and he becomes the President and Head of State, exuding power and authority.”

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That upright carriage, immobile features and stern countenance coupled with the ivory rungu prop were essential part of connoting leadership as was the springy walk which signified he was in the pink of good health.

But basking in eternal good health, ended one day in February 1995. Moi suffered Achilles tendonitis on his left ankle. He could not walk without a limp. And since he did not want to appear sickly in public, he disappeared from news bulletins and even his usual Sunday service attendance was not aired. Kenya was gripped in fear. Rumours spread that he had suffered stroke. That he was dying. That he was probably dead. Kenyans rushed home early. Schools and shops closed. Bank withdrawals increased. Housewives stocked their households, families went shags. Airline bookings nosed north. The Opposition and clergy demanded a statement from the government. Where the hell was the president?

Moi had refused to rest –just as he refused to wear glasses in public

To quell the rumours and return the country to normalcy, President Moi left his Harambee House office and strolled towards Parliament exchanging pleasantries with surprised bystanders: “Do I look like I am dying?” he joked.

Moi had refused to rest –just as he refused to wear glasses in public- and it was only when Dr Silverstein recommended rest after casting his ankle did he disappear from public view. Silverstein explained that his desire to appear virile and fit was “very much in keeping with the African idea of the whole man, the total man.”

The sick off was beneficial as he used it for political experimentation.

 Moi used his time away to gauge politicians, what they would do and say. Who would check on him, who would keep away. As he told his handlers “you don’t strike when the first rat comes out of the hole. He is there to look out for the rest. You bide your time and when they all come out, you strike.” 

Dr Silverstein had not set out to be Moi’s personal physician. He was seeking adventure when he came to Kenya in the 1970s.

 “When I was at the University of Chicago, I didn’t really know there was a world out there,” Silverstein said. “I was so much into academics and school and trying to excel.”

Eating life with a big spoon: Dr Silverstein at his ranch in Naivasha. He knows the internal plumbing of the Who’s Who in Kenya.

But things changed after he graduated from the University of Chicago Medical School at 22. It was while serving in the military Air Force in Taiwan that he became footloose, a desire to see the world. A chance came through a cardiologist friend from Kenya suggesting he apply for a position in Nairobi. 

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“I didn’t hear from the University of Nairobi for a long time, and suddenly they called and said, ‘Please come tomorrow. You’re badly needed to run our new cath- lab,’” Dr Silverstein recalled in an interview with the Chicago alumni journal.

What was to be a two year stay turned into a 40 year plus sojourn.  

The exciting part is that I got to travel with him all around the world

Duke of Kabeteshire: Dr Silverstein treated former Attorney General Charles Njonjo in the morning, President Moi in the afternoon. They were not to collide at the same time.

“I was meant to be here for two years, but extended it for reasons I could not clearly explain,” he says. “I never thought I would stay for long but every time I thought of leaving, I got a reason to continue my stay.” 

Surveyed closely, the reason for staying was two-fold: He went on from running the cath-lab (catheterization laboratory) to heading the cardiology unit at Kenyatta National Hospital in between promotions to senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi School of Medicine where “I had just arrived for the first graduating class, so everybody from the second graduating class onward were my students.”

The other reason was being named chief cardiologist for the Kenya government in 1977. Then Vice President Daniel arap Moi took notice.  At the time, President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta had Dr Njoroge Mungai as his personal doctor with a retinue of personal nurses trailing him. 

When Moi became president after founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s death in August 1978, he asked Dr Silverstein to be his personal doctor.

Listen to Dr Silverstein now in his 70s: “The exciting part is that I got to travel with him all around the world,” said Silverstein. “Whenever the Head of State traveled overseas, I would go too. I was in the Great Hall of the People in China during Deng Xiaoping’s time,” he recalled adding that was how the rich, famous and very important people became his clients including Kenya first African Attorney General Charles Njonjo.

To teach medical students at the University of Nairobi and treat patients when he came to Kenya in the 1970s, Dr Silverstein had to learn Kiswahili. He is now fluent in four languages and comfortable with six.

Of interest, was that during the Njonjo Commission of Inquiry constituted by Moi to investigate the conduct of his former Attorney General in 1984, both men were very stressed by the foregoing considering Njonjo was instrumental in Moi becoming president. To manage them, Dr Silverstein slotted Njonjo for morning consultations and Moi in the afternoon!

Forget the meeting, Mandela is very sick, he is coming

Time is up: The Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore discovered his cancer was serious in the office of Dr Silverstein where he paid Sh100, 000 for some 30 blood tests. “You have to fly out to London onight,” said Dr Silverstein.

Dr Silverstein was also to treat South African President Nelson Mandela in a dramatic fashion as Kalonzo Musyoka informs us in his 2019 memoirs, Against All Odds.

Mandela had been released from Robben Island prison in April 1990 and was on his way from Ethiopia through the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, but fell ill.

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  Musyoka was then Deputy Parliamentary Speaker and had gone to State House for a meeting with Moi who told him “Forget the meeting. Mandela is very sick, he is coming and I don’t want any media or cameras. We must organize for his hospitalization’.”

Musyoka recalled: “We sped to Jomo Kenyatta Airport with Moi. I was driving behind his small convoy. There was no fanfare; nothing special; no song and dance. No journalists and photographers. It was just Moi, the medical staff and I.”

An ambulance with a stretcher and medical equipment trailed the convoy and “I expected to see Mandela wheeled out of the plane. To our surprise, he walked out of his plane; tall, majestic but looking frail. He was escorted to the Nairobi Hospital where he was attended to by Moi’s personal physician, Dr David Silverstein. He did not stay at the hospital for long. I think Dr Silverstein just attended to him and monitored him overnight. The following day, he was driven back to the airport and flew back to South Africa. Once again, there was no fanfare.”

Mandela did not forget Dr Silverstein. When he returned to Kenya that July, tagging his wife Winnie during an official visit he pointed at him  “You, I remember you” he said during the laying of  a wreath at the mausoleum of Kenya’s founding president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

But Mandela’s recognition of Silverstein was no surprise to his second wife, Channa Commanday, a nurse practitioner he met during the 1998 terrorist attack in Nairobi. “He’s very famous in Kenya,” said Commanday. “He’s famous among the medical people, and it’s a big honor for the young residents to get a spot rotating with him.”

I have four kids. Two who are white and two who are half black

Kimya: Nelson Mandela, then wife Winnie Mandela and President Moi when he visited Kenya. Dr Silverstein secretly monitored him overnight at Nairobi Hospital in 1990.

Their first date followed the 1998 Bomb Blast when after days  treating nearly 500 patients, they had dinner and “we’ve been together ever since,” said Commanday, the mother of two sons and step-mother to two others from a previous marriage.

“I have four kids. Two who are white and two who are half black and they are all very exciting people who have made our lives whole,” he said.  

Dr Silverstein who besides establishing a  private clinic at Nairobi Hospital, also bought a house in Nairobi’s upmarket Lavington and a farm around Lake Naivasha where “I go out and I jog in the morning with giraffes, zebra’s impalas, warthogs and eland. I think they’re beginning to know who I am now,” he joked. “Hippos are also in the background, and occasionally a buffalo, which is a little more exciting.”

Of his days after leaving America he said: “I’ve really enjoyed the type of medicine I get to practice,” Silverstein said. “It’s been very challenging and a lot of fun.  I know I’ve made a big difference to a lot of people. Many of my friends and colleagues in the United States have retired due to burn out. To be honest with you, I don’t think I’ll ever retire as I haven’t found anything more fun than being a doctor in Africa.”

Despite his service in the Air Force, Dr Silverstein had a tremendous fear of flying. To overcome his fear, he earned his pilot’s license.

“Somehow I was convinced that the only way I was going to relax is if I learned how to fly,” he said. “I was also a control freak.”   

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