By Jeri Sumitani
Special to WebMD Health News
Editor’s note: Jeri Sumitani is a U.S.-trained physician assistant who volunteered to help with the Ebola outbreak at Connaught Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She will be chronicling her experiences during her six-week stay. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8 and Part 9.
At the end of my 3rd week in Sierra Leone, Time magazine released this year’s “Person of the Year” – the Ebola Fighters.
Since I decided to join the Ebola response, numerous family and friends have called me a “hero.” I have never considered myself worthy of such a title, and after being named “Person of the Year,” I got to thinking – what is a hero?
The Oxford dictionary definition of “hero” is “a person of superhuman qualities and often semi-divine origin; a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”
I have met many people here who would easily fit this definition. Basic human survival instinct is to run away from threats to health and well-being, but some of us decided to head straight for it. If you ask 10 of us our motivation behind joining the Ebola response, you would likely get 10 different answers. Some might be more altruistic, such as “because I felt compelled to help.” Others might be more self-serving, such as “because it is an incredible experience to further my career.”
I am not critical of either. After going through the volunteer recruitment process, I know that all of us on the ground had to fight to make this happen. Not only have we all had to make some level of financial, professional, or family sacrifices to be here, most of us have had to jump through several hoops as well.
I started reaching out to organizations back in September. I was turned down by at least two due to my “lack of experience in treating viral hemorrhagic fevers.” Two others never responded to my inquiry as they were were less involved in health care for Ebola patients.
Even after King’s Sierra Leone Partnership offered me a position, it still took almost two months to sort out the logistics. I also had to get special permission from my employer to take an extended unpaid leave of absence. And I will face a month of “quarantine” back home in South Africa, during which I will not be physically able to return to work.
All in all, it was three months in the making; and I am one of the fortunate ones for whom this has actually materialized. I have received numerous emails from friends and colleagues who have not been able to overcome similar hurdles, asking me how I was able to find my way to Sierra Leone.
I thought I understood what it meant to be a hero until I started working with the Sierra Leonean staff in the Ebola isolation unit. These nurses, cleaners, screeners, and incinerators fight for their country and their own people day in and day out. They have watched an unbelievable number of their own colleagues, family, friends, and community members die of Ebola.
Every day they go into the unit and medicate and feed even the most frail of patients; they mop up vomit and diarrhea and keep the unit as clean as we can under these circumstances; they help us place members of their own community into body bags to be carted off to unmarked burial grounds, completely contrary to their culture and tradition.
Most, if not all, have been stigmatized or discriminated against by their families, community, and even other health care workers. One nurse told me she left one of the wards crying after being asked to leave “because you have Ebola.” A cleaner was told he was no longer welcome to use the staff bathrooms – now all of them use the patients’ bathroom. Another nurse is keenly aware that he is being watched by others when he enters the prayer room, and that those in the room avoid having to pray next to him. Several staff have been handed notices to vacate their homes by landlords who fear that they may contaminate the residence.
Despite all of this, they continue to don their personal protective equipment (PPE) and enter the isolation unit. When I asked one nurse why he works in the unit, he told said, “This is my country and my people. I am fighting for Sierra Leone.”
I think it is fair to say that all of us fully intend to assist in any way possible if disaster struck our communities. But how many of us would do what the Sierra Leonean staff do every day?
To me, they are the true heroes of this epidemic.