Happy belated New Year! This past Christmas and New Year, by far, were the strangest I have ever had. Christmas was spent working and then eating grilled chicken, French fries and dancing with my Liberian colleagues and some of the survivors who came to visit. New Years was a little more low key; I watched a movie and treated myself to chili from an MRE that I have been saving for such an occasion: It was a holiday season that none of us will ever forget.
A few weeks ago, Rachel, who was 33 weeks pregnant, came to the ETU and tested positive for Ebola. While she was at the unit, we found out that her two-year-old was wandering the village and begging for food after his caretaker died of Ebola. No one would take him in and care for him because they were afraid of contracting Ebola. Eventually, we tracked down Rachel’s husband — who was in another district working — and put the two-year-old in his care. Rachel became another person when she knew her son was safe. She began to interact with staff and other patients; she smiled, took walks outside and participated in some of the unit games. Despite getting better, Rachel had to stay at the unit until she delivered. On New Year’s Day, Rachel told staff that the baby was not moving. Ultrasound confirmed our worst fear; the baby no longer had a heart beat. Since Rachel was now symptom free, she could safely be induced. Rachel delivered her stillborn, buried him and then headed home, happy that she was a survivor and that her two-year-old was safe, but also heavy hearted for having lost her unborn child.
Following the current sporadic pattern of Ebola in Liberia, we had yet another bush village experience an outbreak. Among the group that came to the ETU was a 47-year-old grandmother named Neyamah, and her two three-year-old grandsons. Though the boys are not brothers, they have been raised by their grandmother and as siblings. The first grandson tested negative and was sent home. The second three-year-old, Samuel, tested positive and was moved to the confirmed unit. Shortly afterwards, Neyamah also tested positive and was moved to the confirmed unit. They were placed in the same room, though even the same room was not enough proximity for Samuel. Every afternoon and night, Neyamah would lie next to Samuel until he fell asleep. Once he was sleeping, Neyamah would go back to her own bed to rest. Within minutes, Samuel would be awake and scurrying across the room to climb back into bed with her. Once Samuel was asleep again, Neyamah would quietly get up and move to the other bed. The process would continue until Neyamah gave in — which she always did — then the two would sleep peacefully the rest of the afternoon or night.
As time progressed, both Samuel and Neyamah became too ill to be in the same bed or moving back and forth. Eventually, Samuel was moved to another room so that one of the survivors could help take care of him. Samuel was the first of the two to pass away. He died at night, but Neyamah wasn’t informed of his passing right away due to her own critical state. The morning following Samuel’s death, Neyamah was told the awful truth. When she heard the news, she began crying out and then collapsed. She died a few minutes later. That afternoon, a solemn procession of staff and family accompanied the burial team to the graveyard, where Samuel and Neyamah were buried side by side.
After so many harrowing stories, one expects to find nothing but despair, pain and sadness in West Africa, but what can be found is far from that. I have been traveling a lot between Sierra Leone and Liberia to help train new international and national staff. On my last trip to Sierra Leone, I had to make a stop in Monrovia. The capital is next to the ocean and I was able to walk down to the beach before I had to leave for the airport. On the beach I met two young Liberian women named Lisa and Rebecca. They live in a shack on the beach. They own almost nothing but the torn clothes on their backs and they have lost loved ones to Ebola. Despite that, I encountered nothing but joy. They happily explained how wonderful it is to wake to the sound and view of the ocean, they proudly showed me the shack that they had built and they thanked me for coming to their “beautiful country” to help. Like so many other Liberians, they possess little and have suffered much- but maintain a resilience and richness of life that can’t be taken away.
As my time here in West Africa winds down, I find myself looking back on the many patients I have cared for and the many people I have worked with over the past four months. One theme seems to consistently come to mind: what it means to be a hero. True heroes seem hard to find in our modern culture. They seem to be few and far between, with many only acquiring such a title by means of popularity or economic status. If there was only one lesson I could take from this experience, it would be that a hero is simply an ordinary person who chooses to live their life in an extraordinary way. These heroes open their hearts, embrace courage, give generously, and risk much- never anticipating a reward, recognition or even a pat on the back. These heroes are not few and far between; they are all around us, walking unnoticed among us. They show their faces in the most unexpected places and at the most unexpected times- especially during difficult times, like the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
I am humbled, honored and awestruck by the many heroes I have met here in Africa. From the chlorine sprayer who risks his life everyday at an Ebola treatment unit so that, “when my children grow, they will see that their father did his part to help and they will have an example to follow”, to the taxi driver who knowingly risks his life to bring an Ebola patient to the unit when everyone else chooses to leave that person laying on the side of the road. From the nurse who used all of the vacation time she had saved to go on her first vacation in years in order to come join the fight against Ebola, to physician whose children bravely stood up for the work their father was doing in West Africa when other students began to harass them at school. The list could go on almost forever. There is so much good in this world. It’s not a good created and encouraged by the rich, the famous, or the popular – it’s a goodness born of the small, everyday heroic acts of ordinary people.
Looking forward to seeing everyone soon!