The burgeoning Ebola epidemic in West Africa in the summer of 2014 captured the world’s attention, and my own. Initially I did not seriously consider volunteering, as I was still nursing my infant daughter. But in mid October, as the epidemic grew larger than ever imagined, I found myself reading an article (Farrar & Piot. 2014. NEJM 371:1545-1546) that stressed the immediate need for a “massive increase in response”. By the time I finished reading the paper, I was convinced that I had to try to be a small part of that response.
It is surprisingly hard to get a foot in the door of disaster relief. I applied to about ten organizations, most rejecting my application without review, due to ‘lack of disaster relief experience’. I finally got a few positive responses and went through rounds of interviews, applications, psychological evaluations and reference/background checks before being offered positions with two different organizations. I chose to work with King’s Sierra Leone Partnership (kslp.org.uk), an academic group out of the UK which has been partnering with the Sierra Leonese providers at Connaught Hospital since 2011.
People at home have asked in baffled tones why I want to go. I am no hero and have no illusions that I will even be able to play a significant role in this epidemic. The fact is that Ebola has ravaged the ranks of healthcare workers in West Africa, with very few trained local people left. If I, with a background training in medicine, infectious disease, epidemiology, public and global health, do not volunteer to care for these sick patients, who then should?
Today, I fly to Freetown via Washington DC, Brussels, Dakar and Conakry with conflicting emotions. A young child, about the age of my daughter, babbles across the aisle, making me wonder if I really belong here, hurtling across the Atlantic at a cruising altitude of 32,000 feet.
But this is public health: to contain an outbreak at its source to keep the greater population free of disease. In a small way, perhaps this work will provide a safer, healthier world for my daughter.