Yes, I Mae Gene Best am an alumna of #14 Military COVID-19 Treatment Center (hereafter referred to as #14) and if my diagnosis was accurate, a COVID-19 survivor. I am not declaring this fact as a badge of honor for myself but in thankfulness to God. For how can you give God the glory without telling exactly what He has done for you? To God be the glory because but for Him, my release from #14 free of the coronavirus was not guaranteed.
I realize that I am opening up myself to stigma from some relatives, friends and colleagues by publicizing that I am a COVID-19 survivor. To survive dreadful, highly contagious diseases like Ebola and COVID-19 should be celebrated but sadly declared survivors face stigma, rejection, loss of jobs, ruined relationships which can be almost as traumatic as suffering those diseases themselves.
But it never occurred to me to hide the fact that I had tested positive. I was shocked like everyone I told and I told scores of relatives and friends but I don’t recall having any sense of embarrassment or even considered the consequences of disclosure such as the issue of stigmatization. So that wasn’t the thing that was bothering me at all at the beginning of my experience at #14.
England’s Prince Charles and Prime Minister Boris Johnson and scores of celebrities across the world had already tested positive and openly discussed their experiences with COVID-19 in the media. So I was sorted on that score. I was in “good company”, so to speak. So, for the life of me, I cannot figure out why President George Manneh Weah, who because of his close contact with several of his government officials who recently tested positive, allegedly would not have himself tested and the result made public. Mr. President, please do the right thing and be a good example of obeying the rules you want the rest of us citizens and residents to follow. This is no do as I sing business. You yourself must walk the song. With all due respect, you and the First Lady should get tested and announce the results, whether positive or negative. Be seen washing your hands, wearing your masks and keep social distance at work and events.
How I got into #14 is mind boggling and still mystifies me now, many weeks after my first encounter with COVID-19 on April 6. But I will get into the narrative of my diagnosis, admission and quarantine at #14 later.
First, I want to add my voice to the universal rap: Folks, COVID-19 is real and deadly so be serious. It is no respecter of persons rich or poor, powerful or ordinary, young or old, male or female, so be serious. WE ARE ALL VULNERABLE, it’s no joke, so let’s be very serious. While they are searching for a cure, let’s do our part – wear a mask, keep your distance, wash your hands often, obey the lockdown and, above all, PRAY – seriously.
We are not in control here folks. With a ham-fisted health care system groping its way through this pandemic, we are driving in reverse, on empty, with flat tires, on the wrong side of a very bad road. Everybody in the car is shouting different instructions while we are heading for the cliff – the sudden explosion of the virus that will totally overwhelm us and cause the deaths of thousands in a small nation that is still in recovery from the impacts of Ebola – all because of indifference, procrastination, selfishness and greed.
Now is the moment for the President and his Health Minister to reorganize and pull together a dynamic, influential COVID-19 Task Force not based on personal relationships and greed but comprising our best minds available here and abroad who can tackle this hideous virus on our soil with the seriousness, competence, ingenuity, discipline and resourcefulness required. These experienced, patriotic individuals can be found and would be willing to work if they can be assured of a clean and serious operational environment devoid of corruption and insularity. In order for the mission to succeed, the funding needed must be provided expeditiously and placed under the control of a reputable independent financial entity, not Finance Ministry. Time is not on our side. The clock is ticking. Our closest neighbors, Sierra Leone, pulled its act together as early as February this year and are now reaping the benefits of astute leadership and timely action. Even if their numbers of infected cases and deaths are higher than Liberia’s, the difference in leadership between some of our sub region’s nations and ours is striking. It is instructive of how many of those leaders are vigorously tackling COVID-19 hands on, mounting and steering the fight visibly, loudly and leading by example by complying with and enforcing the strategies and actions compulsory to defeating the virus.
How Did I Get Coronavirus? Why did I even get tested?
I have no idea. It’s mind boggling to me. It has been more than four weeks since I was confirmed positive and no one that I know of in my workplace, my home and my very limited sphere of contacts have tested positive to date. Also to date, I have absolutely no symptoms of the virus. No fever, no cough – not even the allergy cough that I have suffered from intermittently for years had bothered me several weeks prior to the test or during my two week stay at #14. So with no symptoms how did I end up getting tested in the first place?
My husband Kenneth Y. Best had been running a fever for several nights in late March. The fever would occur at night but in the day he would be fine. One night I was worried enough to call Dr. Wilhelmina Jallah, Minister of Health, after 10. Considering the medical situation in the country due to the pandemic, I was mainly concerned about which hospital would admit Kenneth if he got worse that night. She advised that I continued with the medication I was giving him for the fever until morning.
We made it through the night and the following day we decided to go to the Earlbert Medical Services in Fiamah, Sinkor to check if he had malaria. The test results came back negative for both malaria and typhoid. So on Monday April 6, we went to see our friend, Dr. Vuyu Golakai with whom we had made an appointment. Dr. Golakai is professor of General and Trauma Surgery at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center (JFK) as well as Vice President and Dean Emeritus of the A. M. Dogliotti College of Health Sciences at the University of Liberia. He reviewed the lab results and it was at that point that he recommended that considering Kenneth’s symptom, he should go and be tested for Coronavirus and, if that result was negative, then other investigations could be done to find out the cause of the persistent fever.
Not knowing where the testing center was, we went to the NPHIL on Congotown Back Road to enquire. The security guard there went into the building to find out and came back to direct us to the SKD Stadium basketball court. We got to the gate of the stadium and the security there, in the midst of his telephone call, waved us in the direction of the basketball court. There were no signs leading to the court or on the building identifying it as the COVID-19 testing center.
Kenneth and I entered the building but, except for a PPE clad person spraying the entrance area, we saw nothing inside the building reflecting the significance of the medical activity that was supposed to be occurring there. Someone came and brought two chairs and assured us that the people doing the testing would soon come.
I looked around and was taken aback at how non-descript, even unsanitary for medical purposes the area was. This space looked unfinished with a pile of timber on the floor against one wall and a few other building materials nearby. In the middle of the space was a crude little desk which did not look like it had been wiped down. On it was a tray with some medical instruments on it, uncovered. “We must be the first to be tested here, because they do not look ready,” I thought to myself.
Eventually two PPE clad medics came over from the far side of the interior of the court. They introduced themselves and the process began.
“Who is here for the test?” the female medic taking the record asked.
“Both of us,” I responded.
To this day I do not know what made me include myself. Perhaps it was the fact that I was not the one sick or having any coronavirus symptoms whatsoever, so I didn’t think there was the remotest possibility of my testing positive. At that time I had not internalized the concept of someone having the virus but being asymptomatic. Uppermost in my mind was the feeling that I did not want Kenneth to be alone in taking the test for this horrible, killer virus.
The female medic took down Kenneth’s information (name, date of birth, age, address, my phone number) on what I presume was a medical record of the procedure. She then ushered him to the male medic who administered the test. Contrary to what I expected, no blood was drawn. Instead, specimens for the virus are obtained by swabbing the throat and nose with a long swab stick, placing the cotton end on which the specimen was collected into a capsule, which is sent to the laboratory. The nose swab is the most uncomfortable because they do insert the swab really deep into the nostrils.
I was next and the procedure was repeated on me. We were then told we could leave and they would call us with the results. I took them at their word and did not ask precisely when the results would be available. We were given nothing as a reference or record of the test or any contact information from their side. This was April 6th.
On Wednesday, April 8th at about 4:30 p.m., I received a call from a person identifying himself as one of the COVID-19 response team. He said they wanted to come to our house to see me. Since we had given them only my phone number, I was not bothered. Besides, even Kenneth was feeling better and had no more fever by then. So I gave them the directions to our house. Shortly after the first call, I received another call informing me that the contact team wanted to see me specifically because I had tested positive for coronavirus and I would have to be quarantined at #14 Military Hospital right away. They were sending an ambulance to pick me up, they said.
Kenneth and I were in complete shock. I called Dr. Golakai. He said when they arrived he would speak with them. I also called my sister, Dr. Thelma Awori and our son Bai to give them this unthinkable news.
When the medics called again to get directions, I tried to prevail on them to delay my admission to #14 until the next day to allow me time to make arrangements for someone to stay in the house with Kenneth and our 9-year-old granddaughter.
“My husband is 81 and recovering from fever and I can’t leave him in the house alone,” I pleaded with them. They told me the order had come from their boss and he was not available to reverse it and that an ambulance was on its way.
I tried to remain calm but it was not easy. My greatest worry was for my husband who was recovering but still needed to be watched since we still did not know what had caused his fever. His appetite was poor and he needed to be coaxed to eat. I also test his blood sugar every two days and there was no one else to continue that if I left.
I went into our bedroom and began throwing some clothing and toiletries into a bag while still hoping to persuade the medics or reach some authority of theirs to postpone my removal until the following day.
At about 7 p.m. the ambulance arrived – sirens and all — and the medics dressed in their PPEs got down and opened the cabin for me to enter. I remained on the veranda with my husband, still trying to persuade them to delay my admission until the following day. They declined to speak on the phone with Dr. Golakai, who we called to see if he could intervene. So he advised that I go with them and we would see what could be done later.
Kenneth and I returned to our bedroom for me to get my bag. We prayed and I made him promise me that he would eat and regain his strength because we had to meet on the other side of this awful turn of events.
Back on the veranda, it was heart wrenching to leave my husband in his condition looking forlorn and uncertain as well as our granddaughter who watched in sadness. In just a couple of hours our lives had been thrown into chaos.
Before entering the ambulance, a female medic, wanting to ascertain that I was the right person they were taking away, asked, “You are Mae Best?” “Yes,” I replied. “You are age 35?” she asked.
I laughed. “You see all this gray hair and you are asking if I’m 35? I am 74,” I corrected her.
Until this day we are still wondering how that error on my age data occurred and pondering over the validity of the rest of the record she was reading from. Could there have been some mix up of my test results with someone else’s? During my stay at #14, I observed with apprehension the manner in which record keeping of the monitoring of patients was done and I couldn’t help reflecting on that moment before entering the ambulance when my misstated age information left me open to doubts and questions. Not to mention the fact that, to date, I have not been given any record of my hospitalization or a medical report of my day to day status, testing and retesting results and my condition and status on being discharged from #14. But more on that later.
It was now about 7:30 p.m. Because I was not sick at all, I opted to sit in the ambulance instead of lying on the cot. This proved to be a most uncomfortable position that I had only myself to blame for. I should have let them strap me on to the cot because an ambulance in Liberia, driven at high speed on uneven pavement and weaving through Red Light traffic, is not for fun. After ten minutes, the ambulance abruptly parked on the side of the road. A medic explained to me that they were waiting for another ambulance bringing a patient from some other location so that the two vehicles could arrive at #14 at the same time.
The wait was less than fifteen minutes. I sat there still in a daze, wondering what had just happened to land me in this ambulance. I forced myself to remain calm and polite to the medics who obviously were just doing their job – following orders.
We resumed the drive and arrived at the hospital at about 8:30 p.m. I was anxious to get out of the ambulance but that was not my call. The medics said we had to wait for other medics to receive us. I watched as the ambulance ahead of us was disinfected before the patient and medics got out. It was about 9 p.m. before I was allowed to disembark from the ambulance. I was instructed where to stand and wait until a medic came to usher me into the wing of the building where I would reside for the following two weeks.
I was ushered into a self-contained room with three beds, one of them ready for me to occupy. A medic welcomed me, saying the facilities were still being fixed up and apologized for any inconvenience. They taped the phone number for the call center on the room door in case I needed help. I was then left to settle in.
I sat on the bed trying to understand my situation. It didn’t make sense. I was very upset that I did not stand my ground and refuse to leave my husband in his condition. Dr. Golakai had said to me that if they agreed to let me self-isolate at home, he would be willing to monitor me every day or they could do the monitoring themselves if they chose to. But there was no decision maker on the team of medics in the ambulance that collected me.
The whole episode seemed to me like an arrest and incarceration at #14. My son Bai and I wondered during our phone calls whether we (newspaper publishers) were being targeted and if there were some sinister motives afoot.
I called Kenneth. He said he was fine. My sister had gone to spend the night with him and our granddaughter so that was a huge relief for me.
Undressing for bed jolted my awareness of my surroundings. There was no window blind and I was totally exposed to the front entrance of the building, as I was to discover the next morning.
My visit to the bathroom added to my feeling of depression. There was disgusting water sitting in the shower and in the sink apparently due to plumbing issues. It was clear to me that I was not going to be able to use this bathroom that night. Apparently the room and bath had not been cleaned and disinfected after use by the previous occupant. I got ready for bed but sleep eluded me until emotional exhaustion overcame me.
The rooms have AC units and mine was on at 16 degrees. At around midnight it became too cold and I got up and looked around for the remote to raise the temperature – without success. I decided to contact the call center for help. I was told by the responder that there was only one remote for all the units in the hospital and it could not be located. She told me that I should climb up on the bed frame to reach the breaker and switch off the AC. I was struck by that suggestion. I asked her if she knew who I was. “I am 74 years old and you want me to climb up on the bedframe to switch off the AC way up there?”
Her response: “OK, then leave it.” No one came to assist. I had noticed a broom in the hallway and used the handle to turn off the AC. The broom handle became the remote throughout my stay.
Otherwise, all the doctors and staff I interacted with at #14 were friendly, professional and doing their best in a highly dangerous environment to carry out the heroic job of caring for patients infected with a killer virus. With the exception of the doctors, it was impossible for me to get to know most of the staff I interacted with as they were always in full PPE gear when in the wards. From janitors to the doctors and even maintenance crews, all were fully protected with PPEs distinguishable only by what they were doing and in most cases, their titles and names were scrawled with markers on the backs of their PPEs. It was on his third visit to my room that I was able to recognize Dr. Jerry Brown without him saying who he was. Dr. Brown is the National Case Management Lead for COVID-19 Military Treatment Center, a.k.a. #14. He heads a team of about eight doctors, among them Dr. Heounohu R. Hessou, Clinical Coordinator for the center.
It must not be overlooked and unappreciated that doctors, nurses and other staff working in medical facilities for the treatment of patients with highly infectious diseases like Ebola and Coronavirus must wear for several hours at a time, these extremely uncomfortable protective suits known as PPEs (personal protective equipment) or risk becoming infected and possible death. In the ward opposite mine, were two of the hospital’s nurses who had become infected on the job. Thankfully they have recovered and presumably have returned to work at the Center.
Beyond the high risk of their work environment, the doctors of #14 and some staff (as I learned later) have to live away from their families in accommodations near the treatment center both to remain on call and rapidly accessible as well as for the protection of their families.
I was impressed to have someone who introduced himself as a psychosocial worker visit me on two occasions during my first two days and enquire how I was faring. He asked if I had any problems and I repeatedly mentioned that the plumbing in the bathroom needed to be fixed and the room cleaned. A day later I was moved to another room with a cleaner shower. Although there were two beds, I remained the only occupant in room #27 for the remainder of my stay. Dr. Brown assured me that he would do his best not to pair me but later that promise did not hold.
As the number of infected cases rises, as it must, so must the corps of specially trained medical personnel to operate facilities such as #14, otherwise the quality of patient care and other medical deliverables will suffer catastrophically if the health system is suddenly overwhelmed by the virus. Fortunately, there is a good number of experienced medics from the Ebola era but I suspect they are not nearly enough to meet the growing and diverse needs of the coronavirus pandemic in Liberia. Dr. Brown himself mentioned to me on one of his rounds that if Liberian people did not change their behavior, he envisioned #14 being packed with patients even lying in the hallways. Pondering on that statement later, I recalled that when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was given a prognostication that hundreds of thousands of Liberians would be wiped out by Ebola she shot back defiantly, “That will not happen here.” That is the push back I want to see from this President and all our health personnel on the frontline of this fight against the pandemic – not a surrender due to procrastination, indifference to this oncoming catastrophe and a focus only on what can be sucked out of this tragedy by greedy, unscrupulous individuals.
Regretfully, substantial resources have already been expended in the misguided policy of hosting patients in hotels for two weeks, after discharging them from #14 instead of releasing them to return home with clear instructions on isolation in the home setting. Thankfully, that dubious course of action has been discontinued and I was one of the first to be sent directly home instead of to a hotel. But I digress.
I overheard the issue of incentives for pandemic workers discussed, but not in glowing terms, by some health workers who I interacted with. If remunerations and conditions of service across the board are ideal, highly motivated top notch personnel can be found to deliver up to standard services at #14 and other areas of our health care system. But just imagine doctors and nurses who have to spend hours in PPEs every day in a highly dangerous environment; and who do not have the proper equipment, devices, drugs and even basic supplies to work with, let alone their being underpaid or having their salaries delayed. Still digressing.
Contact tracers who are not given enough transportation fare, scratch cards, materials and whose salaries promised to them are cut in half in the midst of the pandemic response cannot be expected to produce credible and timely information. The bottom line is that this pandemic cannot be dealt with using unskilled friends and family or people you can pay anything to or treat any way you please while money is syphoned off to pay for useless services in return for kickbacks. Testers and contact tracers are too critical to ending the spread of the virus and they must be compensated accordingly and on time and must be given the moral and other supports they need and deserve. End of digression.
During my entire stay at #14, it was humorous yet painful to watch how the medics dispensed medications in the wards. Medications were dispensed twice a day. At times they came into my room holding in their hands dozens of bags of medications or the tablets folded in paper that they had to sort through one by one to locate mine. As a result I made it a point to check the package I was given to make sure it had my name on it. Rarely did I see a trolley with the medications properly arranged on it to make distribution efficient and timely. Once I had to contact the call center to report that it was past 10 p.m. and my medication had not been dispensed. I was told the dispenser was coming but was still distributing to patients on the other side of the hospital.
The medics came by several times a day to check my temperature and ask if I had any symptoms – fever, cough or sore throat. Thankfully I remained asymptomatic throughout the two weeks of my stay. I observed, however, that I did not have a chart on which my temperature and other information were being logged. Instead, the medics carried long off cuts of paper on which they recorded my and other patients’ information – temperature, name, date of birth and age. I was concerned about this and wondered where all the information they collected every day ended up and the possibility of my information inadvertently ending up on someone else’s paper or vice versa. They did not carry any clipboards which would have given note-taking and organizing a fighting chance at accuracy and zero chance of my being erroneously recorded as a 35-year-old again.
One might ask why I did not complain about some of these substandard practices. I did when it was expedient. But there are times and places where it is imprudent, even foolish to be identified as a whiner: in a restaurant, hospital or prison, to name a few.
As the days went slowly by, my anxiety level over the situation with my husband and granddaughter at home dissipated. Our son Bai moved in with him because Bai was among my close contacts being monitored along with several persons who work at our house. My husband was feeling much better as I could tell from our many phone calls.
Being alone in room #27 gave me time for reflection to figure out my plight and pray.
“Lord, what is going on”, I kept asking. Kenneth and I read Psalm 91 every day, believing we (our extended family and friends around the world) would be spared. (Read verses 5 to 10). How come I’m in this place? What happened about that part that says “there shall no evil befall thee, nor any plague come nigh thy dwelling?” But I continued to thank God for three main reasons: 1) that I was the one diagnosed with the virus and admitted to the now famous #14 and not Kenneth; 2) that I was in good health, eating well and even vigorously exercising in my room; and 3) for the scores of family and friends, co-workers and church members who constantly called and texted, sent video clips that kept boredom, frustration and anxiety at bay. I also received from my family bags of fruit, even a sizeable chop box of snacks and toiletries.
One day the good Lord acted like a typical Liberian. He answered my question with a question: “Where were Daniel and the three Hebrew boys (not your local ones) when I rescued them; or Job and even you and your husband, whom I prevented [Samuel K.] Doe and his henchmen and The Gambia’s Jammeh from harming? Even my own Son who pleaded with me to ‘let this cup pass from me’ was not spared, but went to hell and back.”
So Room #27 at #14 now became a sanctuary of spiritual growth for me.
On the heels of this epiphany God retested me. I got word that I would be getting a roommate. Space was apparently becoming an issue at #14 and it was not possible even after appealing at the highest level to avoid me being paired. Although I was assured by the doctors that the patient they were pairing me with was asymptomatic as I was, my family and I were worried. They tried to have this decision reversed at the highest level, but to no avail. At that point I recall telling one of my children that God was in control and sometimes we need to get out of the way so He can do His own thing.
Dr. Hessou, who led her into the room, introduced us and, from his introduction, I became fully aware that this twenty-something year old Ghanaian lady was also not thrilled with being paired. Nevertheless I welcomed her and we later shared gripes about being disturbed from our “confine zones” that we had become adjusted to. We both agreed that it seemed pointless to keep us there when the beds could be reserved for symptomatic patients.
I was fine with being alone in my room. Dr. Brown had assured me that no other patient would be brought into the room since I was totally asymptomatic and waiting to be retested soon. That obligation did not hold. So into my second week when I was told that another asymptomatic person would be sharing the room with me I was skeptical at this unwelcome news and so were my doctor and family.
What a wry sense of humor God has! It turns out that there was nothing to fear but everything to benefit from a 74 year old and a young woman of 28 sharing a room during a stressful and uncertain time in a high risk, sequestered environment. This lovely, well-mannered, well-educated Ghanaian was easy to converse with and did not display any attitude, self-importance or give me the cold shoulder that would have been the typical vibe between most youths and a person nearly three times their age. (I will call her Lovely as I do not have her permission to use her name in this narrative).
Lovely was also down to earth. She expertly managed the AC unit with the broom handle and wiped up the dripping water that missed the bucket sitting under it. She got up every morning and swept the floor and plugged in her percolator – not to make coffee or tea. We used the hot water to inhale steam, covering our heads over our buckets of hot water with a sprinkle of Temple of Heaven in it, said to be a strong remedy the Chinese are using against the coronavirus.
“Would you like to try it?” she asked on her first morning in the room. I had heard about this therapy but had never tried it. It became a morning ritual for us as we prepared for our retesting due in the next couple of days. We switched to lemon grass infusion when I learned that Temple of Heaven was not good for the lungs. We also gargled with warm salt water daily.
It was going to be my third retest. The second test done almost a week after my admission had come back positive again and I did not dare get into another argument with “I AM”. Lovely had received one negative result already and in keeping with the protocol, she was hoping for another negative to get released from #14.
The specimens were collected and the next day the results for both of us came back negative. That very day Lovely was released and sent to a hotel in Marshall City for her second quarantine period of two weeks. After being so skeptical about being paired, we were both now very sad to part. But I was also happy for her to put this perplexing experience behind her.
As this was my first negative, I was happy for myself and so relieved. I was retested for the fourth time the very next day, Monday April 27. The following morning, I was informed that I had tested negative for the second time, qualifying me to be COVID-19 non-infectious and I would be discharged that afternoon. I was so excited. When I told my brother, one of Liberia’s prominent doctors, that after leaving #14 I was going to be quarantined for two weeks in a hotel, he couldn’t stop laughing. “How are they going to maintain that policy?” he wondered. “Anyway, let me know where they are taking you,” he said.
I waited for several hours to be discharged. By late afternoon I decided to contact the call center since no one had come for me. Dr. Hessou himself came on the line and apologized for the delay. They have just changed the policy and are now sending patients home instead of to hotels. We will come for you shortly, he said. Wow, God is upending the tables, I thought to myself. Had they run out of hotel rooms or money?
Outside the building with my Ghana must go bag and my almost empty chop box, the decontamination of patients was in progress with Dr. Abraham Ajami, one of the resident doctors, and a physician’s assistant (PA) looking on. There were about five of us being discharged, an Indian old lady, three men and I. Our belongings were disinfected, personal information recorded by the PA on a sheet of paper and we were ready to leave. I stood watching in fascination as a nurse removed her PPE gear, methodically peeling off and washing her gloves after removing each layer and called out to her by the spray operator. After about 15 minutes of this exercise, she, too, was ready to go home to her family, without fear of infecting them or maybe to sequestered accommodation nearby.
#14 is a newly constructed sprawling one level facility opposite the Edward B. Kesselly Military Barracks along the Roberts International Airport (RIA) highway. I learned that it is owned by the military/Ministry of Defense. The two partially completed wings of this four wing complex were hurriedly pressed into use when the Ministry of Health realized that the Redemption Hospital on Bushrod Island was both inadequate and unsuitably located (near the sprawling West Point slum community) for hosting the expected increase in COVID-19 cases.
Instead of using his name, President Weah, I learned, used his football jersey number, 14, by which the COVID-19 Military Treatment Center is now known. Obviously, patients don’t get a tour of the hospital and therefore I have no knowledge about the features and attributes of the #14 complex. I arrived there at night and only from a frontal glance could I see that construction work was still ongoing.
What I could deduce judging from the two units I occupied consecutively, the self-contained rooms are adequate if overcrowding due to demand does not raise the occupancy to more than two persons.
A major deficiency of the building is the lack of screens at the windows, leaving patients to the mercy of swarms of mosquitos at night and flies sitting all over one’s bed and belongings during the day. Mosquito infestation will increase as the rains progress, setting COVID-19 patients up for a two front battle with coronavirus on one hand and malaria on the other, if the hospital is not screened as a matter of urgency, I thought. The installation of window blinds is also important for privacy of the occupants, especially women, confined in this ground-level structure.
The hospital clearly needs a crew of trained janitors to ensure that the rooms and bathrooms are cleaned every day. A broom is placed in each room obviously with the expectation that patients would do their own cleaning. I was taken aback when I was told by one staff that “you have to keep your rooms clean the same way you do at home.” Cleaning bathrooms is another matter, which requires detergents and cleaning items which were not available to us patients.
For the two weeks of my stay at #14, I did not get a change of beddings. I asked and was told that the hospital’s laundry equipment was yet to be installed and staff trained to operate them. I consoled myself that it was my own dirt I was sleeping in.
When I realized fresh beddings were not forthcoming I tried my utmost not to spill food and beverage on the bed which served as an all-purpose furniture for eating, holding clothing and other personal belongings, reading materials, drying rack and so forth. The beds were the only furniture in my room. My chop box, percolator and bucket sat on the floor. As no visits among patients were allowed, I never got to see what the other rooms contained but I later learned they are all alike.
To be fair, there were several times when Dr. Brown or a medic apologized for the inconveniences and said that the hospital was not yet one hundred percent up to standard, but that they were working on making improvements. Dr. Brown also talked about producing hospital linen and gowns for patients when he saw the clothing we patients had to bring with us and launder in our bathroom. Dr. Brown is right. I hope those improvements have been made by now for the benefit of all the patients and not just to cater to the VIPs that have recently taken up residence there.
Most government institutions are noted for poor to non-existent maintenance and evidence of this syndrome was already creeping into the upkeep of this facility as I described earlier about the plumbing issues I found in the first unit I occupied. These unhealthy conditions can continue indefinitely as misappropriation, indifference and procrastination kick the can of solutions down the road. This brings to mind how GSA Managing Director Mary Broh one day actually took me to see her immaculate guest bathrooms at GSA which could be compared to those in a five-star hotel. In my view, a hospital bathroom should be among the most sanitary. But I digress.
Being the only furniture in the room, the black painted metal frame beds with spring bases held PVC covered mattresses that were highly impressionable, so to speak. Wherever you sat on the mattress during the day left that side totally deflated to the point where your backside felt the metal spring underneath at night. The days are spent sitting on these beds leaving a hollow in the mattress that torments you at night. This was so uncomfortable that one night I was forced to swap an unused mattress (with no impressions yet) from the unoccupied bed in my first room. It would be interesting to see what these poorly manufactured beds and mattresses cost us. Were these beds meant for soldiers, I wondered? But no human being who is ill deserves to be inflicted with more discomfort such as these beds caused.
For #14 to be considered a proper hospital, the government and hospital administrators must vigorously and expeditiously improve its environment, maintenance and medical care delivery to rise to acceptable standards now. The wait and see attitude will only be costlier.
Living in #14, one got a good sense of what prison must be like – not Liberian prisons though. The amenities here would be palatial to South Beach inmates. I’m talking about the restriction aspect of imprisonment.
In my view, the hospital needs a rigorously followed patient care delivery schedule. Medications, meals, housekeeping should not be hours late or not delivered at all. It would be awesome were patients provided with printed basic housekeeping information at their bedside so that they know what to expect and also a number to call for help in their reach. That information however would require a bedside stand.
Granted, #14 is in its formative stage but there is no reason why communications to patients must not follow standard medical practice. At every stage during their hospital stay, patients must be informed about the medication they are receiving and given any other information pertaining to their condition and care. To be fair, I saw some of this in practice. However, in the case of COVID-19, when tests are repeated until the patient shows two consecutive negative results to qualify for release, the doctor informs the patient verbally of the test results but there was no evidence of charts where these results and any other monitoring, medication dispensed or such were recorded. Instead, the medics or PAs came around with long strips of paper on which the name, date of birth and temperature are written. From the time I was first tested for COVID-19 to the day of my release from #14, I never saw my chart or a formal report. Upon my release I did not receive any report, certificate of status or instructions on how to quarantine at home.
I did get a call to return to #14 to collect my certificate of being declared Coronavirus-free by the health authorities. To be honest, I hesitate to return.
The foregoing issues can be addressed expeditiously if the required funding is made available by the government and training of medical and support staff done without further delay.
With the number of cases and the death toll rising in the country, the focus must be on prevention and containment through increased testing and contact tracing and by constantly amplifying the universal anti-virus measures of social distancing, wearing masks, hand washing and complying with the nation’s lockdown orders.
One thing #14 nailed in my view is the catering service. Three meals a day arrived on time from my vantage point facing the front of the building where the bags containing the food were delivered. The menu consisted of standard breakfast food such as bread, boiled eggs, hot cereals, and for lunch there was the staple rice served with well-prepared greens or a vegetable sauce Liberian style. For dinner, it would be pasta or a sandwich or wrap. Although the catering service delivered on time, a few times the food was served intolerably late by the hospital staff.
During the last few days of my stay, I noticed a very subtle decline in the quality of the meals. The thought occurred to me that nonpayment for service was the devil in the kitchen. As good food is essential to the recovery process of patients, I pray this is not the case with the caterer providing meals to #14. One staff who noticed that I was returning my meals untouched the first two days said to me, “Ma, you have to eat well to fight this virus so try to eat the food”. I took his advice to heart.
This government and all of its predecessors are notorious for failing to pay their vendors on time for services rendered, knowing full well that the vendors have to pre-finance their services, including paying their employees. Woe to vendors who have to run behind payment vouchers at the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning and most parastatals, sometimes for months, even years. My entity is a victim of this ruthless, irresponsible behavior on the part of governments past and present. The payment delays driven by graft of unscrupulous officials from top to bottom have crippled or completely ruined many a vendor and left their brands and reputations in shambles.
I observed the lack of trollies from which the bags of food served in take-away boxes could be distributed. Instead the bags containing the food boxes rested on the floor in the hallway from which they were handed out to patients. Furthermore in some instances I could not be sure whether the person handling the distribution of the food was not the same person who came to collect the dustbin earlier, which begs the question about better management of the separation of tasks.
I point out the above issues because facilities like #14 in Liberia have serious teething problems which, if not checked in the early stage, can become mature challenges that are costly and sometimes impossible to fix. Beyond this, my observations in this narrative, negative or positive, are two-fold. First, they are meant to identify with both the courageous health workers and the defenseless patients of #14 who are trapped like the rest of humanity in the throes of a mysterious, highly infectious and brutal disease resembling an alien invasion. #14 is a microcosm of our country swept into a major crisis of global proportions that it is still not fully awake to, let alone equipped, to handle. The lack of astute leadership, a plan of action and coordination is profound and astonishing. So is our failure to learn anything from the mistakes or successes of other nations.
Secondly, my intention here is to urge this government to protect the lives of #14 patients, their brave care givers and by extension everybody in Liberia by taking seriously the massive catastrophe approaching that could obliterate our small country of barely 5 million if it does not formulate and execute a plan of action now to contain and stop the spread of the virus. There is no time to waste even as it is being speculated worldwide that a second wave of the virus is anticipated and perpetrators may be at work weaponizing this deadly virus for their own ends. Therefore we cannot afford to lose focus or time in petulant and useless arguments but instead face the facts, get our act together as a nation, continent and race in order to survive. In the end that is all that will matter.
My return home and to self-isolation; thanking my family and others
As I was driven out of the #14 gate, I was overcome with gratitude that by God’s grace, my tangle with COVID-19 was over; I had “trampled the young lion and adder under my feet,” as promised in Psalm 91. Promise fulfilled.
I arrived home to my beloved Kenneth, my son Bai, granddaughter and household members from whom I now had to now distance and isolate myself in a room for the following two weeks. But I was in my comfort zone with no AC but with a fan and a mosquito net.
My family and friends, church members deserve no small gratitude for standing by me throughout my stay at #14. The force of their prayers, love, concern and provision of whatever could bring me comfort was intense and they have my profound gratitude. Daring to come close enough to lay eyes on me was a risk taken one day by my sister and son which is unforgettable. Dr. Golakai’s patience and willingness to offer his medical support and advice, day or night, to navigate every twist and turn in this confounding experience, were priceless. This was not his first time walking us through a medical crisis and likely not his last.
With my back turned to #14, I had mixed emotions. But what stands out distinctly is that I had encountered doctors and other medical personnel who work there at great personal sacrifice and who care, doing the best they can with the hand they have been dealt. They have my sincere appreciation and best wishes going forward.
My heart goes out to everybody here and abroad who have lost loved ones to coronavirus and we pray that the end to this nightmare will come soon.
I did not realize that on returning home after being tested negative of coronavirus I would be monitored daily for the two-week home-based quarantine period by the county COVID-19 response team. Young Solomon Falkornia, my monitor, came to check with me daily, take my temperature and enquire whether I had any symptoms of the coronavirus. Wearing a face shield, he spoke with me through my room window. He was also monitoring the rest of my household who were in quarantine for 21 days. I was impressed by his dedication to this assignment as a contact tracer for the county COVID-19 health team and the professional and responsible manner in which he conducted himself. Solomon told me he is in his final year at the University of Liberia, majoring in Sociology, minoring in Demography. On one of his visits he brought along the zonal Surveillance Officer of the county health team. My #14 roommate who I stay in contact with was also being monitored.
Visit of the County Health Team and official release
On Friday, May 8, the County Health Team paid a visit to our home. They thanked me and the others in my fence whom they had been monitoring, for the high level of cooperation they received from us. As the 21 days of monitoring had ended, they came to inform us that we were now free to move about anywhere, but cautioned us to continue the measures of frequent hand washing, wearing masks, observing social distancing and the lockdown hours. However, we were not given certificates declaring our coronavirus free status as we expected.
The impacts of COVID-19 on the peoples, economies and governments of the world are enormous and unprecedented, even apocalyptic. The massive deaths, infected cases, loss of businesses and livelihoods, separations and restrictions to our way of life all testify to the virus’ colossal attack on our civilization. With no known cure or vaccine in sight, the measures prescribed to curtail and prevent further spread of this alien, intangible, deadly virus have inflicted profound suffering, misery, insecurity and grief worldwide.
For a universal crisis of this magnitude, countries around the world are in a desperate battle for survival. Those nations who are winning against COVID-19 show that they possess the astute leadership and discipline critical and indispensable to their success.
My stay at #14 allowed me to reflect on the mettle and character of Liberia’s fight against COVID-19 – or the lack thereof. The military hospital to be, which has hurriedly been turned into a COVID-19 treatment headquarter, cannot be seen as the stage on which our fight against this deadly plague is waged. Rather, it will be the existence and caliber of a powerful COVID-19 Task Force of honest, patriotic individuals that will determine the quality and effectiveness of the nation’s response mechanism and whether it succeeds in getting the people to unite behind it to defeat the coronavirus.
So far, a Task Force or national plan of action are still nebulous visions primarily because some actors are still focused on finding “donors to help us” so that most of what is received can land in the pockets of the unscrupulous politicians.
For instance the Task Force is till fumbling at testing and contact tracing, key actions required to containing and eliminating the virus. The operatives sent in the field have at the time of this writing, allegedly not received any payment for their services while at the same time being told that the promised amount of their pay would be cut in half. Neither have these testing units and Contact Tracers who should be the heartbeat of our response effort been adequately supported morally or with the basic requirements to carry out their jobs so critical to defeating the virus.
The Government’s lockdown order, furthermore, has apparently given little thought to providing subsidy for essential commodities like rice, oil, medications and fuel to alleviate the suffering of the poorest breadwinners and their families whose incomes have been drastically diminished by this brutal pandemic. Instead, prices have soared, the market tables are bare, clean drinking water and toilets in poor communities are for sale, and a majority of the population is jam packed in slum dwellings, making even social distancing and sanitation impossible.
Meanwhile, some of our leaders tear down and build bigger houses for themselves and acquire other wealth that their incomes do not justify. One can only hope that during this crisis, their faith in God and resilience of the Liberian people will again serve them well.