Ebola: A virus on the rampage
The health workers fighting a terrible epidemic
dangerous virus|Loss of colleagues|Lifesaving changes
A women from Lofa, infected with Ebola, but showing no symptoms had escaped the quarantine around her village after seeing many of her immediate family die of the virus.
She headed toward the capital Monrovia where she had friends and family, but when she reached the city, they had already heard what had happened in her hometown and knew she was likely to be carrying the disease. Her family took the impossibly difficult decision to close their doors and sent her back the route she had come.
"We heard a patient was on the run"
By now the woman was showing symptoms and rapidly falling ill. She made it as far as Bong County before she could travel no further and sought refuge at Phebe hospital where Comfort and her team worked. Terrified by the treatment from her family in Monrovia, the woman used a different name and denied any exposure to Ebola.
The woman’s symptoms were similar to malaria and nobody at Phebe had ever seen a case of Ebola.
“We heard a patient was on the run from Lofa, with Ebola,” said Sangai Henries, a colleague of Comfort and emergency room nurse. “She said she was not the one.”
Before Ebola came to Liberia, Comfort was part of a tight-knit team of nurses and doctors working at Phebe, a small district hospital in Bong County. The facilities were basic compared to a British hospital, but Comfort and her colleagues were proud of the quality of care they provided to pregnant women and new mothers, children with malaria, the sick and the elderly.
It was in June 2014 that Comfort first heard reports of Ebola which originated from Lofa County more than 200 km away. The news from Lofa reported the few patients with Ebola were all being kept under quarantine.
Yet the danger was all too real.
After several days of treatment from several different doctors and nurses, the woman’s condition deteriorated and the terrible realisation dawned on the staff of Phebe hospital that they had been exposed to Ebola.
Five health workers who had treated the woman eventually died of the disease. Henries, the only nurse to survive exposure, said,
“I was afraid, I was in my own room for 21 days. I was depressed and very worried. Then I was angry. My friends had only tried to save lives.”
Ebola had come to Bong County and everybody was now at risk.
An act of kindness with terrible consequences
A month later, Comfort was travelling by bus to work at Phebe when a gentleman gave up his seat so she could sit down. A few hours later she saw the same man in the emergency room being tested for Ebola. Within days he was dead from the virus.
"I separated myself from my family," said Comfort, afraid that she would infect one of her 6 children, or her husband. “So many nurses had already died from Phebe through no protection. I just prayed every day. I was so scared.
A fortnight after that fateful bus ride, when Comfort was finally tested and confirmed that she was positive, International Medical Corps had opened the first of its Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs) in Liberia just a few minutes from her home. Comfort was the third patient admitted to the unit and despite the terrible ordeal of the disease, knowing how many of her friends and colleagues had died from Ebola, Comfort emerged three weeks later as the unit’s first female survivor.
Doctors and nurses at the ETU had noticed Comfort’s compassion and her skill as a nurse, even as she recovered from the ravages of Ebola. Within days of her release, International Medical Corps asked Comfort to come back and help care for other patients.
The strength of survivors
First Comfort needed to go home to get stronger and be with her family – but true to her word, she came back to help. After intensive training from International Medical Corps she was back in her vocation of helping people. Comfort carried with her the hope of a survivor who had been there and recovered, which she used to help patients get through the difficult times.
Sadly, her own hospital was now closed. The chaos wrought by the infected woman at Phebe meant the hospital was forced to shut at the height of the outbreak. The threat of infection for doctors, nurses and patients had simply become too great.
But as Comfort begun to embark on her new life as a survivor, so her hospital began to emerge from the darkest period of its history. On the 1st January Phebe hospital re-opened its doors to patients and exactly a month later Comfort returned to work there, changed forever, but proud once again to be a member of the staff.
Comfort, raises the thermometer and carefully records the temperature of the young woman preparing to enter Phebe hospital in Liberia. The woman is here for an ante-natal appointment and has no reason to believe she is carrying Ebola. Yet Comfort is diligent in the screening process because she knows how dangerous a single infected person can be in a place like Phebe. The hospital now has its own Screening Referral Unit (SRU) which every patient must enter through before treatment.
The patients today are more likely to show signs of malaria than anything else, as the region has gone months since the last Ebola infection, yet Comfort and her colleagues remain vigilant.
"What happened to the nurses at Phebe is always at the front of our minds,” said Comfort. “If SRUs had been from the beginning, no one would have lost their lives at the hospital.”
International Medical Corps' work fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone is supported by the European Commission and the UK Department for International Development.
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