Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone key in training health providers

Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone have much to teach health care workers in the fight against the deadly disease, Carolyn Dunn reports.

Shunned in their communities, they provide invaluable insight to doctors and nurses

Sierra Leone citizens who have overcome the disease help battle the epidemic 2:28

Mohamed Turay lies on a hospital cot, surrounded by health care workers. They are covered head to toe in full biohazard suits.

In a quiet, pained voice, Turay tells the doctors about his symptoms vomiting, diarrhea and excruciating pain in his muscles and joints.

Dr. MariamaMahmoud wipes his brow and tries to provide comforting words, “Have faith you will get well.” She pats Turay's hand and says, “You are getting the best care.”

I've seen other people suffer more than me, I've seen people die of this disease.- Ebola survivor Mohamed Turay

This scene could be happening in any of the Ebola treatment centres that are now operational across Sierra Leone

But this is only a training exercise, conducted in a replica treatment unit built in a stadium in the capital, Freetown. 

That said, these patients are not merely role-playing they are actual survivors of Ebola.

“The survivors are actually the people who went through the disease, they experienced the disease,” says Dr. Musafa Senyonga, who helped design this training program in Liberia in October and has since brought it to Sierra Leone.

“If you’re going to talk about the signs and symptoms and emotions, they would be the best people to bring out this whole picture.”

The role of survivors has proven so valuable to training health care professionals who will be treating Ebola for the first time that thecourse, run by the Ebola response teams for the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and World Health Organization (WHO) is now in high demand, training up to 60 much-needed health care workers a week in Freetown.

“I’ve seen other people suffer more than me. I’ve seen people die of this disease, so it is very important for me to share this idea with other people,” says Mohamed Turay, who lost his wife, father, brother and aunt to Ebola.

Valuable knowledge

Just outside Turay’s mock treatment room, fellow survivor Fonti Kargbo, who often assumes the role of a patient, is timing each scenario to make sure the trainees aren’t in their hot, protective gear for too long.
Fonti Kargbo survived Ebola, but lost his wife and two children to the virus. He wants to help train medical professionals to save other families from what he has been through. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC)

Kargbo’s wife was infected with Ebola while working as a nurse. A patient she was caring for did not disclose he had been in contact with someone who died of the virus, so she only wore latex gloves. 

By the time they realized the truth, Kargbo’s wife, two children and two other family members had become infected. All of them later died.

“I don’t want the mistake to happen to my own family to happen to others,” Kargbo says. “That’s why as a survivor I’m also playing my key role to ensure people don’t die of this Ebola again.”

There is little doubt about the value trainees place on the survivor's perspective.

“I’ve always been asking, ‘Why are the survivors not involved in the fight?’” Dr. MariamMahmoud says from behind her surgical mask. 

“We’ve learned a lot from them, their recommendations, their experiences and what they went through.”

Shunned in community

Unfortunately, Ebola survivors are not likely to find that kind of appreciation in their own communities. Even with a certificate declaring them Ebola-free, they are often feared and shunned by friends and neighbours.

'I don't want the same mistake to happen to my own family to happen to others.' - Fonti Kargbo, Ebola survivor

Mohamed Turay says before Ebola, he used to put his television set outside his home, where the whole neighbourhood would gather to watch.

“But since I was contracting this disease, none of them come to my compound.” 

Indeed, being an Ebola survivor can be a lonely existence. 

“Sometimes when I sit down in my corner and think of my wife, my father, I don't feel very good,” he reflects. “I’ve lost so many things during this crisis.”

Fonti Kargbo says being part of the fight against Ebola provides a distraction at least.

“If I sit at home, obviously I think a lot, especially about my children and my wife, who are no longer there," he says, adding that without them, "the house is too big for me."

Being part of the Ebola training, he says, "wipes off" some of that "stress."

About the Author

Carolyn Dunn

National reporter

Carolyn Dunn is a longtime national reporter for CBC News. Her Canadian postings and assignments have taken her from St. John's to Calgary. She has reported extensively abroad including East, West and North Africa and has done several tours in Afghanistan. Have a story tip? Email carolyn.dunn@cbc.ca.

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