By Gabriel I.H. Williams
Phebe Hospital located in Suakoko, Bong County, once a famous referral hospital in central Liberia, the third most populated region of the country, is reported to be on a verge of collapse. The Phebe Hospital and School of Nursing, which was built and equipped, and also once operated in keeping with American standards, is crumbling due to lack of support.
Conditions at Phebe, like virtually every medical facility in Liberia, have reportedly gone from bad to worse due to chronic shortage of fuel to ensure the supply of electricity, besides the shortage of drugs and other medical supplies like latex gloves. Because of the lack of electricity, Phebe and other medical facilities are unable to perform surgery and other critical functions to treat the sick and save lives. The fuel crisis recently paralyzed the entire country for a couple of weeks, leaving schools and businesses closed, and thousands of people forced to trek on foot reminiscent of the civil war years. Normal functions at government institutions such as the courts and the National Legislature have also been disrupted as well.
The recent fuel shortage has virtually turned medical facilities like Phebe into a death trap. An example is the March 6, 2020 edition of Frontpage Africa, which carries the banner headline: “Phebe Hospital Becoming a Place of Death.” The headline also states: “Death Toll Rises at Phebe Due to Lack of Fuel to Provide Vital Emergency Services.”
According to Frontpage Africa, at least five persons died at Phebe on March 4th and 5th due to lack of electricity to run essential medical equipment. Frontpage Africa quoted sources at the hospital that those who died included patients requiring emergency surgery or oxygen, and that among the dead was a pregnant woman. Another Frontpage Africa report says the deaths at Phebe also include two premature-born babies.
In the March 6 report, Frontpage Africa quoted doctors and patients at Phebe Hospital regarding how candle lights, torchlights, and cellphone lights are used to deliver women in labor, and that patients who require surgery are also requested to provide fuel to operate the generator and latex gloves.
In view of the foregoing, an initiative to help save Phebe from possible collapse cannot be overemphasized. This is an appeal especially to religious entities, humanitarian organizations, as well as other non-governmental organizations, to help rescue Phebe Hospital, which was established by the Lutheran Church, in partnership with the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church.
The three respective denominations, which were at the time administered and funded from the United States, focused on educational evangelism to enlighten the people and medical evangelism to cater to the people’s health and wellness, as they spread the gospel or good news of the salvation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Over the past few decades, the Episcopal, Methodist and Lutheran Churches, which like the Baptists and Roman Catholics are called the mainline churches, endured serious financial challenges, which caused severe cutbacks in services and programs, as support from their respective parent churches abroad dwindled.
So it was that when the Episcopal and Methodist Churches reportedly pulled out of the Phebe partnership, the Lutheran Church, which was the primary partner, was left to continue operation of the hospital with subsidy from the Liberian government. Like Phebe, many medical and educational institutions operated by religious entities receive a subsidy from the government, which has been able to provide little or no support because of Liberia’s prevailing economic situation.
It is in this vein that an appeal is being made to the bishops of the Lutheran, Episcopal and Methodist Churches in Liberia, along with other stakeholders, to begin a process of engagement in order to rescue Phebe Hospital from total collapse. We also appeal to the leaderships of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and the United Methodist Church in the United States, which supported Phebe in the past, to consider the need to help rescue their Liberian brothers and sisters in Christ, who are perishing due to a broken health system.
History of Phebe Hospital
According to historical accounts, Phebe Hospital was dedicated in 1965. Its architectural design and construction were based on American standards, and the medical equipment were the US made.
In an academic paper published in 2011 by Ms. Dione Miller, then a senior majoring in Religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa (USA), at the time it started operation, Phebe Hospital was equipped with piped-in oxygen, central air-conditioning, stand-by power plants, a water purification and filtering plant, laundry facility, emergency room, operating and delivery rooms, as well as obstetrics, pediatrics and medical-surgical wards, among others. American medical practitioners also served at the hospital under the missionary programs that were being undertaken.
The academic paper is titled, “A History of Phebe Hospital and the Role Religious Institutions and Personal Faith Have Played Throughout its Operation.” In the paper, Miller, who has been ordained clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, reflects on how Liberia has had a special influence on her life since she was a very young child. Her aunt, Carolyn Miller, served as a midwife missionary for the Lutheran Church in America, and eventually the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, at the Phebe Hospital and School of Nursing from 1966 to 1990, when the Liberian civil war erupted. Miller’s aunt took her on mission trips to Liberia in 2008 and 2011.
In this appeal for renewed engagement and partnership, individuals whose inclusion in the process could be vital include Dr. Walter Gwenigale, former Liberian Minister of Health and renowned doctor who served for more than 40 years in the medical field. Dr. Gwenigale, who was educated by the Lutheran Church, served for many years as director of Phebe Hospital. Another distinguished Liberian worthy of mention is Madam Elizabeth Mulbah, a noted clinical instructor and health care administrator. Madam Mulbah, who holds a Master’s degree in Nursing Service Administration from the University of Iowa in Iowa City (USA), is also a trainer in community services.
The crisis at Phebe is reflective of the entire health system of Liberia. With the country experiencing rapid economic and political decline due to the very poor performance of the government of President George M. Weah, there is growing fear regarding the worldwide spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and what would happen if the pandemic affects Liberia, given the broken health system.
Another cause for serious concern regards media reports of the outbreak of Lassa fever in Nimba County, Liberia’s second most populated region, which health authorities have been unable to contain for more than a year. Since the Nimba outbreak, the disease has also spread to several other counties, including Grand Bassa, Bong and Grand Kru Counties.
Since 2018, the Liberian Observer has published a series of articles regarding the current Lassa fever outbreak in Nimba and its spread to other parts of the country. On March 4, 2020, the Observer published a report titled: “Amid COVID-19 Fears, Lassa Fever Still Threatens Nimba County.” According to the Observer, quoting data from the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, Liberia had a total of 92 suspected cases of Lassa fever between January 1 and August 25, 2019, including 21 deaths. The report adds that since January 2020, Liberia has recorded 55 suspected cases, 24 confirmed cases, and nine associated deaths from Lassa fever – an animal-borne acute viral hemorrhagic illness, which is reported to be endemic in parts of West Africa, including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
These developments are among the challenges confronting Liberia’s health system, which has gone from bad to worse since the end of the 2014-3016 Ebola Virus Disease epidemic in West Africa that caused more than 11,300 deaths in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Liberia suffered the highest number of Ebola casualties, more than 4,800 deaths, because of the broken health system.
Amid the wave of hysteria surrounding the spread of COVID-19 around the world, including several African countries – some of which are within Liberia’s West African neighborhood – there is a reason for Liberians to be very seriously concerned. Some Liberians are still dealing with the trauma suffered from the recent Ebola tragedy, which also disrupted the economic recovery of post-war Liberia, and posed an existential threat to the country and its people.
With the gathering storm of yet another global epidemic at a time Liberians are enduring chronic depravation and hardship, a private-driven initiative to rescue a very important hospital like Phebe would be a shot in the arm – so to speak- in turning around Liberia’s broken health system. This would help to mitigate what is becoming an alarming situation of the increasing the number of deaths across Liberia. It appears that the cries of death, despair, and emotional distress are becoming a new normal in the Liberian society as more people, including those who are breadwinners for their families, succumb to curable and controllable diseases like malaria, typhoid, dysentery, and hypertension, commonly known as high blood pressure.
To the churches and other institutions to which this appeal is directed, may the Lord bless your thoughts and actions to save lives.
About the Author:
Gabriel I.H. Williams has served in the Liberian government as a diplomat in the United States and Deputy Minister of Information. He is author of the recently-published book, Corruption is Destroying Africa: The Case of Liberia,” which is available online. He can be reached at [email protected].