This is the second letter in a series from Regnum Christi member Kelly Suter about her nursing work with Ebola patients in West Africa. Her first letter was published on the Regnum Christi website. (Click here to read it.)
Dear Family and Friends,
Today is my first day off. While I appreciate this time, it is basically the equivalent of being under house arrest here in Liberia. There is no place to go in the county of Bong, and even the small markets that do exist pose a threat as Ebola is so rampant in this area. I have already fixed the toilet and shower drain, “MacGyvered” some curtains in the bathroom, put a bed together so my roommate isn’t sleeping on a mattress on the floor, hung some laundry lines and washed all of my laundry. Though it has only been a week since my last update, using the rest of my day off to write down both the heartbreak and hope of this past week seems like a worthy use of the remainder of my day.
Last week, an 11-year-old boy named Solomon lost his cousin, Rancy, to Ebola. Since that time, Solomon has eaten very little and spoken even less. A few days ago, another boy, the same age as Solomon, arrived at the ETC. His name is Joe. While Joe was in the suspect ward of the ETC, he also refused to speak and ate very little, not out of grief and depression like Solomon, but out of fear. We actually found him hiding in a corner of the unit one day, much to my heart’s dismay. His blood test came back positive, and he was moved to the confirmed ward of the ETC. Once there, Solomon and Joe instantly became friends. Both boys changed dramatically overnight. They began to eat, to drink, to smile and to speak. The encouragement and joy seen on the faces of the medical staff was almost as priceless as the smiles and laughs of Joe and Solomon as they took turns visiting each other’s rooms and sharing some of the treats brought by family members.
The psychosocial team has been working tirelessly to bring comfort, hope and a sense of normalcy to the lives of our patients. Children have dolls and trucks, adults have board games and books, and even phones are available for patients to talk to family and friends. The most recent improvement, though, has topped them all. The Bong County Ebola Treatment Center is now the only ETC in Liberia that has a projector and screen to show nightly movies for patients! Yesterday was the very first movie. They watched The Lion King. I could have cried seeing our patients, many of whom haven’t left their room in days, sitting upright, outside and grinning from ear to ear, distracted from their reality for even a moment. Of course, in the front row was Joe, Solomon, Solomon’s cousin Christine and little William (George’s son), sitting on his dad’s lap. As the patients watched the movie, the staff watched the patients, mesmerized and elated by the joy on their faces.
Despite all of the happiness that evening, Ebola would remind everyone of its ruthlessness just a few hours later. During nightly rounds, George rushed out of William’s room to find a doctor or nurse. Little William had begun to seize. We gave him some medication to stop the seizure and cleaned him up with George’s help. After the seizure, William was nearly unresponsive, except for an occasional little whimper. George stayed close to him, rubbing his back and speaking softly to him. After about 15 minutes, with George, myself and the physician at his bedside, William passed away.
Since bodies have to be moved out of the room as soon as possible, we moved George into a chair outside. Some of the healthier patients went outside to sit with him and comfort him, though he was inconsolable and it would take a lot of time the next day to convince him nothing he had done had caused William’s death. As I distracted the other kids, the physician carried William through the hallway and into the morgue.
It is not uncommon for patients who otherwise seem to be doing well, like William, to suddenly die. Shortly after William passed, I was called back into the ETC because one of the patients had thrown up a reportedly profuse amount. Assuming all I would have to do is give some medication and clean up, I took only a sprayer with me (no one is allowed into the unit alone) The patient, a midwife named Kumbah, had been confused all day, but otherwise seemed to be doing okay. When I entered the room Kumbah was standing next to her bed spitting blood onto the floor. She looked up and, without warning, fell backwards onto her bed, never taking another breath.
As we covered her body, a patient tapped me on the shoulder and told me a patient in the next room needed help. I went to the room and found Annie laying at the end of her bed and gasping for air. I called her name a few times, unable to understand how she could be dying when only an hour before she had been happily eating her rice and beans. We made her as comfortable as possible before turning our attention to the other patient in the room, Annie’s daughter Naomi. We stayed with them until Annie passed, and Naomi was tucked in bed and nearly asleep in another room. This is the reality of Ebola in a place lacking the resources of a first world country.
After so many harrowing experiences, losing so many family members and friends, the people of West Africa have reason to be afraid and to forgo compassion for their own safety and that of their families. Instead, the people of Liberia continue to demonstrate amazing courage and compassion. After losing his son, George asked to be hired in the ETC as a chlorine sprayer. He wants to join in the fight against Ebola so that other people don’t have to experience the pain of losing a child. One of our grave diggers began working at the ETC because he has seen the suffering of his brothers and sisters and, “wants to help save the world”. The security guard at the new staff residence sincerely inquires every day after the health of the patients in the ETC. The amount of courage, compassion and solidarity demonstrated by this underdeveloped and hemorrhaging country leaves me speechless and humbled.
In fear, this world has forgotten the humanity of those suffering. What are “statistics” at home, here in West Africa are names, and faces and loved ones. In fear, the world has allowed courage to hide. In fear, the world has nearly criminalized compassion. We cannot let fear be our guiding light. We cannot let fear suffocate the innate goodness that exists within each one of us. By virtue of being human, the suffering of others in this world belongs to us all.
Thank you for all of your messages, thoughts and prayers!