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Why I am Going Back to West Africa

Next week I am going to Sierra Leone to volunteer in the Ebola outbreak.


Shortly after returning from Liberia after my stint of volunteering in the Ebola outbreak during my quarantine in December, I received a message from International Medical Corps to ask me for a possible re-deployment. I knew that I would go back again even before I went there but at the time of the call, I was not ready to do so right away as the sad memories of my Ebola stint, were still raw and painful. So I waited for half a day before answering. If they truly needed me right away I would ready myself to go. As it turned out I could volunteer starting in January of 2015. I expressed my wish to go to Sierra Leone.


Why go the second time? Didn’t I count myself lucky to escape catching Ebola the first time? I have been asked these questions.


During my time in the ETU, I remembered three distinct occasions when it was quite possible that I was exposed to contaminated fluids during the process of taking off my protective coverings. Tiny droplets from peeled gloved splashed into my eyes, stinging fluids dripped from my hood into my eyes as I removed my goggles, and cold fluid seeped into my suit as I was sprayed while doffing. While these occasions did cause me to worry for a very brief time of time, the busyness of the ETU routine and the daily dedication and selfless acts of my colleagues of putting their lives on the line dissipated that fear.


Would my presence now make a difference?


In the ETU, loneliness is pervasive and palpable; children are often hospitalized alone, away from their parents, some are made orphans, many patients suffer excruciating pain, and struggle with their fear of dying and worst, dying alone. Death, loss, and heart-breaking sorrow are constantly staring in the faces of the patients. Even if I could only offer them the human touch of care and compassion through the layers of my moon suit, it would have been better than none. My presence might not make a dent in the Ebola cases but it would ease the aches in the lives of the few I touch. Every day I am there will make a difference in someone’s life.


Am I deterred by the quarantine?


The quarantine is an inconvenience but probably necessary to allay unfounded public anxiety and fear. However my reception and acceptance into society immediately post-quarantine displayed by the people I met was awkward and slow. It ranged from a mixture of inexplicable fear, avoidance, embarrassment, and maintenance of an uncomfortable wide berth from me, the potential Ebola carrier, to enthusiastic and heartfelt embrace. Such reactions will not deter me from going back. My period of quarantine pales in comparison to some Sierra Leoneans who are quarantined with remaining relatives in their compound after sick members have been removed. Their quarantine period rolls back to day one again when a fresh member comes down with the infection. Some have been quarantined for as long as 90 days while they continue to run the danger of contracting Ebola from sharing close living space with a loved one who may be incubating the infection.


While the news on Ebola in West Africa fades from the media in the United States to be replaced by more sensational news events, and more liberating still is that new cases have decreased dramatically in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, Sierra Leone, however continues to have the highest number of cases and the fatality keeps on climbing. It has the worst ratio of healthcare workers to population in the three countries that battle Ebola. It suffers the most number of deaths among its existing meagre cadre of healthcare workers during this outbreak. The loss of these healthcare personnel who paid the ultimate price to save their patients would mean that more physicians are needed on the ground to take their place.


Could I rest while the outbreak is still ongoing?


It would be unconscionable for me to sit back and relax while there is still an ongoing need for physicians like me to help out.


As the number of cases is slowly decreasing, the focus of the volunteers may be different. Training the local personnel may be needed to improve the surveillance for the infection as fewer healthcare personnel volunteers may be needed in the Ebola treatment center. Vigilance in contact tracing still remains one of the keys to completely halt the outbreak. One remaining case could spark an outbreak. The Ebola outbreak is not over until 42 days after the last reported case in West Africa.


And so I need to go back.


There is also a compelling personal reason for me to pick Sierra Leone for my re-deployment for the Ebola outbreak. A few years ago, my son spent 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer near the Port Loko District where Ebola is still rampant, helping to educate the young Sierra Leoneans. I am proud of him for taking this courageous step as a young man to go to an unknown country, to live in difficult and harsh conditions, and to offer a helping hand to a people who were total strangers to him. In the end he harbors a fondness for the country and its people. I have no doubt the experience made him see a world where our fates are so intimately intertwined that we cannot conveniently ignore problems that confront our neighbors.


It would seem fitting for a mother to follow her son’s footsteps to go there and help Mama Salone to fight what WHO calls “the largest and longest Ebola outbreak in history”.


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Charles and Me in Freetown

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