WebMD BlogsPublic Health

Battling Ebola: A View From the Front Line, Part 10

December 29, 2014
From the WebMD Archives

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 1Part 2Part 3Part 4,  Part 5,  Part 6Part 7Part 8 and Part 9.

Day 21

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.

WebMD Blog
© 2014 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

More from the Public Health Blog

  • vitamin d supplement

    'What's the Best Time of Day to Take Vitamins?'

    Knowing what time of day to take your vitamin and mineral supplements can help you maximize their effectiveness and avoid dangerous interactions.

  • man sore throat

    'Does a Sore Throat Mean I'm Sick?'

    If your only symptom is a sore throat, it may not be anything to get worked up about. But, how do you know if you need to call a doctor?

View all posts on Public Health

Latest Blog Posts on WebMD

View all blog posts

Important: The opinions expressed in WebMD Blogs are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Blogs are not reviewed by a WebMD physician or any member of the WebMD editorial staff for accuracy, balance, objectivity, or any other reason except for compliance with our Terms and Conditions. Some of these opinions may contain information about treatments or uses of drug products that have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service or treatment.

Do not consider WebMD Blogs as medical advice. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read on WebMD. You should always speak with your doctor before you start, stop, or change any prescribed part of your care plan or treatment. WebMD understands that reading individual, real-life experiences can be a helpful resource, but it is never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified health care provider. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or dial 911 immediately.

Read More