Eight Weeks With Ebola
Letters of Andrius Slavuckis
Sierra Leone, 2014 September-October
Source: Intelligent Life, 2015 April, Nr. 3 (30)
As I presented my passport to the frontier-guard I was kindly asked to state the reason of my arrival. Without any further explanation I showed her the MSF – Médecins Sans Frontiéres – sign on my jacket and I was greeted with a short ‘thank you’. Since then at every airport I was thanked for arriving.
On the first night, my colleagues and me stayed at a small hostel located on the coast. The Wi-Fi password gave the general mood away – godhelpus001.
There were 80 beds in Kalahala’s Ebola Management Centre. We could not call it a hospital, since it was a mere tent with a couple of hallways connecting the separate rooms. The staff consisted of 30 international volunteers and 220 locals and there were three zones established: unknown, low and high-risk areas. All the patients were held in the last zone, which was further divided into four isolated parts: one with potential virus carriers (mostly people infected with malaria), one with strongly suspected Ebola’s carriers (meaning that the official test results still needed to be received), an additional one with confirmed Ebola’s carriers and the last one with recovering patients who in case of positive test results could be released to return home. However, survivors constituted the rarity. Only 40 percent managed to recover and the other 60 percent slowly gave in to death.
There are strict rules regarding the Doctors Without Borders project. Eight weeks without a human touch, without a handshake, embrace.
It became a normality that the ambulance brought at least ten persons, crammed next to each other, per day. Even if one of them was not infected before entering the car, after the trip that was no longer the case. Often, the patients died already on their way; their graves were not market with any name and so their families never had the chance know what had truly happened to them.
‘Ebola is Real!’ – that is all I think. Every morning I take antimalarial medication, drink half liter of water and check the general state of my body.
There are strict rules regarding the Doctors Without Borders project. Eight weeks without a human touch, without a handshake, embrace. It is doubtful though that anyone would be willing to hug me, due to the strong smell of dry chlorine (chlorinated water kills all the traces of the virus). Personal hygiene became a sort of a mantra to me. I wash my hands every five minute and I noticed that started touching my face much more carefully…
She was stuck in the ambulance car. Through the open door I saw her arm, bent at the elbow, trapped in metal construction of the bed. While caring the chlorine spray, I was wondering why she was laying in such strange position. Only a little later I realized that she was already dead. She wore a flowered dress and her legs were abnormally contorted.
Moments later my colleagues and me encountered a problem. Woman’s body would not move out of the bed. There was no time for consideration – we had either to break the bed or break her arm. I leaned and grabbed her stagnant wrist – even through three layers of gloves I still felt the coldness of her body – and I tried releasing her shoulder. It became more and more difficult to breathe, sweat was flowing in streams. This could not last for longer and so I pulled her shoulder strongly toward myself – the bed fell on the ground and I was left to hold her entire body. Hygienists started spraying the chlorine spray. I could not stand the heat anymore and so went towards the exit…
Last week 25 persons were released. These are remarkable numbers. They indicate that more and more people not only are capable of fighting Ebola, but can overcome it as well. The treatment that remains – nursing. Since there is still no reliable medicine, a strong immune system is the principal opponent of Ebola.
Those who move from the third zone to the fourth one radiate joy – they do everything: wash their clothes, dishes, eat, smile, and play. Our success redeems the hard work.
Margareta started working at the Kalahala’s Ebola Management Centre from the very beginning of its establishment. At some point she started complaining having night fever and soon enough her blood sample was taken to the laboratory. She was confirmed for having the Lassa virus. It is a type of fever similar to that of Ebola’s and it is curable as long as there is necessary medicine. However, due to Ebola all the medical practitioners that treated Lassa’s patient had died and so there were simply no medical institutions left to medicate Margareta. We decided to isolate her at our centre.
I was mesmerised by the courage and determination with which the locals greeted their every day. They would arrive at the hospital as if they were going to a battlefield, persistent to work until Ebola is finally defeated.
Margareta was placed at an isolated VIP tent, where there were no other patients. We tried our best to separate Lassa from Ebola. The conjunction of the two would have been disastrous to the patient. A special medical team was formed to take care of Margareta; the tent was kept extremely clean, decontaminated with chlorine spray. However, after ten days of fierce fighting, Margareta lost. That was our second lost of a staff member at Kalahala’s Centre.
I was mesmerised by the courage and determination with which the locals greeted their every day. They would arrive at the hospital as if they were going to a battlefield, persistent to work until Ebola is finally defeated. They needed no motivation – all of them were working fantastically.
The Centre had to be expanded: tents had to be transformed into actual wooden houses, pharmacy had to be built. I took initiative in creating all of these buildings; however, knowing that this only signifies that Ebola is going to stay for long…
Andrius is a 32 years old archeologist from Vilnius, Lithuania. He finished humanitarian logistics course at Lyon’s Bioforce institute and since 2001 is working at Doctors Without Borders organization. Andrius participated in missions such as one in Haiti where after the earthquake he helped fighting cholera, the other in South African Republic where he countered HIV, as well in South Sudan where he was working in refugee camps.