Exactly two months ago, when the initial ebola outbreak seemed to be subsiding in the country, I wrote an article entitled, When the Nurse Happens to Be Your Mom: More Reasons Why Environmental and Occupational Health Must be Prioritized. It was published in the Daily Observer in May. While the intent of that article was to review pertinent lessons learnt from the passing epidemic and hopefully draw attention to the plight of health care workers in the line of danger, little did I know that just few weeks later, the very lessons I attempted to draw from the situation would be the headlines of an even more tragic national outbreak. Little did I also know that it would hit so close to home.
In late May, during a work related visit to Lofa, a colleague fell ill and had to be taken to the Tellowoyan Hospital. It was with great shock and sorrow that we found out that the pleasant young nurse who attended to my colleague during his bout of malaria lost her life to ebola just a few days ago. With an ever increasing spread and death toll, the “rumor” many believed to be just another story has sadly proven to be much more than fiction, but a real Greek tragedy which the nation is struggling to grapple with.
Just think about it for a minute. How can we possibly live in a country riding taxis and vehicles with four persons cramped in the backseat and not exchange some amount of bodily fluids?
How does a mother stop caring for her sick child even though that child is showing possible signs of the disease? How does a husband not care for a sick wife? How do you overcome the grief of not being able to partake in the burial of your loved one lost to ebola? Indeed, this is one epidemic which cuts to the very core of our humanity as a nation.
Ever more relevant today, I revisited my May article: “Looking back, we realize that throughout the entire month’s episode, health care workers were at the forefront of it all: attending to patients, following up on supposed rumors, assisting in efforts to quarantine suspected cases, collecting blood samples for analysis, raising awareness, etc. In an effort to contain the situation, this close range contact exposed health care workers to disease risks several hundred times more pronounced than that of the average citizen. Just think about it. The nurse on duty at the time could have been your mother. The doctor could have been your uncle. The physician assistant could have been your friend. But yet, their health and safety was continuously placed in clear and present danger, all in an effort to perform their sacred duty of preserving the sanctity of human life — yours and mine.”
I then concluded by saying, “As we revisit the drawing board and attempt to extract the lessons learnt and perhaps define the way forward following such a drastic disease scare, the often forgotten field of environmental and occupational health demands a careful revisit.”
With a heavy heart today, I remember pleasant nurse Korpo, I remember Sis. Gaydour, Dr. Tehmeh, Mr. Kollie, Sis. Angie, Dr. Sankoh, Dr. Ajavon-Cox, my sweet girls Gifty and Alberta and all the hundreds of health care workers, doctors, nurses and physician assistants across Liberia who are out there, in the line of duty, exposed to disease risks several hundred times greater than the rest of us may ever face.
I see their faces, I recall their smiles, I remember their warmth and I do what Abraham Lincoln revealed as one of his greatest personal secrets. I pray.
Assessing the current ebola epidemic and the realities of prevention, Abraham Lincoln’s secret becomes all the more relevant: “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” So while we wash our hands, avoid bushmeat, minimize direct contact and stay cautious, it’s time we remembered one another. It’s time we reflect on the bonds that hold stronger than class, sex, religion or ethnicity. It’s time we reflect of that which defines us as a nation. It’s time we unite against a common foe. It’s time we prayed for one another. It’s time we pray for the nation of Liberia.
God bless and keep us all during these difficult times.
Author’s affiliation: M.Sc., Environmental Health-Harvard School of Public Health, Cyprus International Institute
B.Sc. Zoology, emphasis Public Health-University of Ghana-Legon, 2012 Harvard Cyprus Program Fellow