Fear and death. That’s what I remember most, though not necessarily in that order, from the nightmare when Ebola struck my hometown.
Two years ago this week, the World Health Organization declared that the Ebola epidemic ravaging Liberia was a “public health emergency of international concern.” By then it had already overwhelmed Redemption Hospital in Monrovia, where I was the outpatient supervisor. My hospital was one of the biggest in the capital and one of the busiest — until the epidemic struck.
Ebola was a horrifying disease for Liberia, as it was for Guinea and Sierra Leone. We had not experienced it before, nor were we prepared to fight it. In fact, our culture may have helped it spread. When someone is sick in Liberia, everyone comes around to touch and comfort the person. That helped Ebola virus move easily and quickly through the country.
When patients came to Redemption, health workers examined and treated them without protection. We weren’t used to wearing gloves, gowns, or boots in the hospital. Many of my coworkers died. I would work with a colleague one day and then, two or three days later, he or she would be dead. That made the survivors afraid; none of us wanted to touch patients again. But they kept coming to the hospital.
Family members would call the hospital. We would tell them, “There is no space.” But they often came anyway, dropped patients outside the hospital, and then left. Sometimes we would get more than 15 patients — some alive, some dead — at once.
You couldn’t get away from fear. It was always at the back of our minds. I worried about which of my colleagues would get Ebola next, and whether I or my family would get it.
At the peak of the epidemic, Ebola patients overwhelmed the hospital. Our medical director died of the disease, along with several other doctors, nurses, physician assistants, nurse aids, and others. Many of the hospital workers ran away. The hospital was forced to stop operating.
I stayed on and volunteered to lead a contact tracing team. Contact tracing means finding people who had come in direct contact with an Ebola patient and bringing them to the hospital for observation. This helps find new cases quickly and isolates potentially infected individuals so they can’t spread the virus to others.
My family didn’t want me to take this on. But I wanted to help my country and my people, and needed to do something instead of sitting and being afraid.
When a person came to the hospital with fever, vomiting, diarrhea, or bleeding, my team would immediately go to his or her home and ask those living there a number of questions. In the zone I was assigned to, people lived in clusters. One house might have as many as eight families, each family up to eight members. That meant we could interview 50 or 60 possible contacts for a single case of Ebola.
This was very challenging work. We were afraid of getting Ebola and didn’t want to enter the homes of people who had it. Sometimes we were confronted by angry family members who felt that we were making up a story that their relative had Ebola. Many were in a state of denial. Sometimes we even had to contact the Liberian National Police to guard us or to prevent families from taking a body and burying it.
The members of my team worried constantly, as I did. But if we didn’t try to stop the virus from spreading, what would happen? It might spread to our families, our friends, and our relatives. So we kept on, eventually tracking down more than 900 potentially infected people.
One of the few bright spots for me was learning about a vaccine for Ebola. I knew it was experimental, and that no one really understood what the effects of the vaccine would be. I also knew that I had been exposed to the virus through my contact tracing work. I decided to be the first volunteer to get the vaccine after thinking back on the number of family members, friends, health workers, and fellow Liberians who died from Ebola.
I am so grateful because, although I do not know yet how successful this experimental vaccine has been, since I got it I’ve been feeling very well.
Emmanuel Lasanah is supervisor of outpatients at Monrovia’s Redemption Hospital and was the first person in Liberia to receive a shot of the new Ebola vaccine that was tested in Liberia. You can see Lasanah talk about his experience in this short video.