The Dire Ebola Outbreak and its Mire Field of Medical Volunteering
Tomorrow I head to Liberia to volunteer with International Medical Corps (IMC) in their fight against the Ebola virus right at the heel of a second Ebola infected patient in US, this time a nurse who took care of Mr. Duncan, the first Ebola patient in US.
Ebola rages on. The situation is direr by the day.
At the end of June while I was having a holiday with my family in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Medical Teams International (MTI) asked for a volunteer to Monrovia, Liberia for the Ebola outbreak to leave in a matter of days. I volunteered even though I might have to cut short my holiday but they decided to send a pediatrician. It so happened that he landed in the same hospital where the two American doctors came down with Ebola worked. Very quickly he was recalled back to US and MTI stopped sending further teams temporarily.
Daily news of the Ebola outbreak is all over the media. The human toll is difficult to comprehend. When MTI had no immediate plans to send future volunteers, I began actively inquiring of MSF and writing to CDC, Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) of WHO and other NGOs about being a volunteer. With my infectious diseases background and years of being a Director of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiologist and volunteering in Africa, and the suffering of human story being played out daily, I knew deep in my heart that I could not sit back. With each passing day, the feeling that I had to be there became more intensified. MSF wanted me to do another long stint of 9 to 12 months in a “non-hot zone”, I was not willing to do so. Despite the dire situation and predictions of this runaway Ebola outbreak, the process of looking for a volunteering spot was mired by a painfully slow process of no or delayed responses and paperwork. Some NGOs are still taking stock of the situation, deciding what roles they will be playing even at this late stage.
On October first, the day after the first case of Ebola was diagnosed in the United States, I was finally offered a contract by IMC to go to Liberia as a volunteer in their recently built Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) in Bong, Liberia leaving in 2 weeks.
I took a 3- day CDC Ebola Training conducted in the Center for Disaster Preparedness, FEMA, at the Department of Homeland Security along with 35 other healthcare personnel from all over. Donning the full gear of personal protective equipment, we began to have some sense of what it would be like to work in an ETU. Even though this was a simulation, we felt as though we were walking into a mine field. The worst day was during our last day there at 89 degree F but it will be much worse in Liberia because of the humidity. This was also the day when Mr. Duncan died from Ebola.
My family is incredibly supportive although understandably there is a lingering fear of the possibility of my coming down with the virus. Friends and family alike know me well enough that once I made up my mind there is going to be no turning back and no amount of persuasion will change my mind. My family back in Malaysia thinks I am crazy to go and that I have done enough with my other periods of volunteering.
Am I afraid of contracting Ebola? Sure I am human just like everyone else. But what about the nationals who stay there and care for the patients for days on end, they do not have much choice but many continue to care for the Ebola patients simply because they are the healthcare providers and the patients need them. To date, over 400 healthcare workers have contracted Ebola and over half of them have died. I cannot sit back home and watch the death toll rise and not do something about it. If not for the mire field of medical volunteering for the Ebola outbreak and the tedious process of finding an NGO to volunteer with, I would have been there a long while ago.