I have never been afraid of emergency relief work and the places it has taken me, until about three months ago when I joined the fight against Ebola in West Africa with International Medical Corps. For the first time, I found myself hesitant as I stood in front of the boarding gate of my last connecting flight the flight that would take me into the heart of the Ebola outbreak. As the gate attendants ushered people forward, I remained in my seat, the weight of the decision I was about to make rooting me to that spot. As my mind spun, a nearby TV screen began showing images of Ebola victims. As quickly as my fear had come, it disappeared and determination took its place. I had overcome one of my greatest obstacles: myself.
In an Ebola treatment unit about a mile into a tropical Liberian forest, I would learn firsthand of the many other obstacles I had yet to conquer. I learned to communicate with patients despite language barriers, and how to convey compassion to patients when my protective gear masks my emotions. I learned to find creative ways of bringing a sense of childhood into the unit for kids who have seen more death than most will see in a lifetime, and I learned to manage my own pain and grief at losing so many who I came to help.
Personal protective equipment also is one of my greatest obstacles, although it also is one of my greatest weapons against Ebola. Functioning in full protective gear with the extreme heat and humidity is largely a psychological task for me, requiring a need to master the ability to quell anxiety and panic. After about two hours in the unit, I sweat so profusely that my head and heart begin to pound and a nagging voice in the back of my head begins to tell me that I cant breathe and that my goggles belong anywhere but on my face.
One of the first patients I cared for was a 5-year-old boy named William. He became ill with Ebola just as his father, George, was leaving the unit as a survivor. George immediately went back into the unit to take care of William. As with most patients who have Ebola, William had days when he was near death and other days when he was up participating in arts and crafts. Unlike many, William had the loving care of his father who never left his bedside. William and George were among the group of patients who experienced the units first movie night a tradition that continues to this day.
They watched The Lion King that evening. But a few hours later during nightly rounds, George rushed out of Williams room to find help. Little William had begun to seize. We gave him medication to stop the seizure and cleaned him up with Georges help. After the seizure, William was nearly unresponsive, except for an occasional whimper. George stayed close to him rubbing his back and speaking softly to him.
After about 15 minutes, with George and me at his bedside, William passed away. George and I stood in silence next to his bed watching his little body and half expecting him to wake up. Eventually, reality settled in. We moved George to a chair outside. Some of the healthier patients went outside to sit with him and comfort him, although he was inconsolable. It took time to convince him that nothing he had done had caused Williams death. We carefully put little William into a body bag and, as I distracted the other kids in the unit, the physician carried William through the hallway and into the morgue.
Of course not every story is sad. Recently, Korto, an Ebola survivor, and her 3-month-old daughter Josephine came to the unit by ambulance. Josephine had diarrhea and a fever and began vomiting only hours after Korto was discharged. Josephine tested positive for Ebola and grew weak and dehydrated quickly. Each time an IV had to be restarted, she fought a little less. Eventually, we had to hold her down and shave off half of her beautiful head of hair to place a scalp IV. While not a difficult or uncommon task when caring for babies, that moment carried with it a sense of defeat. Korto had to leave the room, and the medical staff were visibly shaken by this task. Despite all, Josephine continued to deteriorate. After days of expecting Josephine to pass away, her symptoms suddenly began to disappear. Josephine gradually regained her strength until she was once again a chubby, happy baby. Josephine is one of the youngest survivors of Ebola.
Many have asked why I chose to board that final connecting flight to risk my career and my life for those I have never met in West Africa. A priest speaking to his parish in Liberia summarized it much more eloquently than I ever could. He said, Life comes and goes; what matters is how we live. Do we have the courage to be people of conviction? Do we have the courage to be people of faith? Let us live as the people we are, despite the darkness that surrounds us.
What are statistics to my friends and family in the U.S., are names, faces and loved ones here in West Africa. By virtue of being human, the suffering of others in this world belongs to us all. While I am not a saint or a hero, I believe all life is valuable, and I am willing to use my life and my profession to uphold that conviction.