I volunteered in the Ebola outbreak because I could not see myself staying at home when there was and still is a real need for healthcare personnel on the ground to help combat the epidemic. Many local healthcare workers paid the ultimate price in this fight. I am glad that Time Magazine recognized many of the nationals in their Persons of the Year cover. I knew it was dangerous to volunteer for the outbreak but it was something that I ought to do; I was going into it without the knowledge of how dangerous it would be.
When I finally was signed up by IMC to go to Liberia, Mr. Duncan, the Ebola infected patient from Liberia died and soon after two nurses who took care of him came down with the infection, it became abundantly clear that this was a different volunteering mission. Truly there was the real danger of my being infected with the Ebola virus and even died from it. Was I ready to depart from this earth and the people I love? Life had been good and I was not ready to leave prematurely but if it was really my time to go, it would be so.
Whether volunteering in such a situation and putting one’s life on the line thus inducing extreme anxiety and worry in one’s family constitutes an act of selfishness is a possibility that one has to grapple with, however the need to reach out to one’s fellow humankind supersedes that concern.
Over the last nine years of medical volunteering and responding to various disasters in different parts of the world, the Ebola outbreak is one of the most difficult and heart-rending experiences I have ever had. What makes it even more poignant is that when the patients need close human contact the most in times of extreme sufferings, pain and fear, there is none to offer except via a barrier of protective coverings. Most often they die a lonely death, unattended, struggling with their last breath. Children who are separated from their parents probably do not comprehend why they are left by themselves. I remember clearly as if it were yesterday discovering tall and elegant Nancy who always kept her hair neat in corn rows and dressed well, died inelegantly sitting on the bucket commode. Rigor mortis had already set in early that morning when we found her.
When a patient was confirmed to have Ebola, we tried to reassure him that this did not mean he would not recover. When we led him from the Suspected Ward to the Confirmed Ward to join the rank of the Ebola infected, we wondered what raced through his mind. In the ETU, we were often exposed to large quantities of infected fluids exuding from the patients, blood, vomitus, diarrhea while we treated, cleaned and changed them and we were also exposed to patient who died, dead bodies are known to carry very high load of infectious particles.
In the beginning it hit home to me that there was a real possibility of a true exposure, however as time went on inspired by the persistence, dedication and selfless caring of my colleagues that fear was pushed to the back my mind and the goal of getting the patients better overwhelmingly became my main concern.
I have seen deaths in my medical career but not so many in such a short period of time. It is as though death is laughing at our impotence in stopping it from taking away the very patients we are trying so hard to save. Daily there seems to be a tug-of-war with death whereby we win a few hours of reprieve with our IV fluids and medicines and the patients appear to regain their fighting spirit and strength but soon death has the upper hand. The very sick patients who once step over the precipice are irretrievably lost. We feel keenly their sufferings and mourn grievously our loss. But there are also triumphant moments when our patients spurn death’s sting and won undeniably.
In the ETU we were in our little cocoon battling Ebola one day at a time. Out in the villages, there are still many people infected and affected by it and many remain vulnerable. Many inhabitants of villages are wiped out by Ebola. Families are shattered with few left to pick up the pieces; parents lost children, children orphaned, partners lost loved ones…The human tragedy is unrelenting and incomprehensible.
A few days before the end of my time in the ETU while doffing and with my goggles off, I felt for the second time during my volunteering, fluid flowing down to my left eye and burning it. That day the sprayer was spraying me all over more vigorously including over my hood. I could not reach out to wipe my face and just withstood the burning. I tried to reassure myself that the burning I felt was probably from the chlorine and not any infected fluid. After all this time a healthy lingering fear still lurked.
My 21-day quarantine is finally over, I am home free at last but the sobering thought is many in West Africa continue to battle Ebola and they are still facing an uncertain period of “quarantine”. In the ETU, we signed official certificates certifying that the patients are Ebola-free and they carry them around as proofs of their immune status. Here I am asked to have the DPH certifying that I am definitely safe to face the public and care for patients. My local papers covered my exploit in Liberia, I hope it does not spread undue fear and cause me to have to carry such proof.
Those of us who came voluntarily to help in the outbreak have been called heroes as well as villains. I cringe at the thought of being labeled as a hero or a saint which I am neither. I am just an ordinary human being who has been touched by the cry for help and responded, nothing more. There is no question in my mind that this is the right thing to do even if there are risks involved, including the possibility of getting infected and dying from Ebola. Sed Ministare.