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A Hero’s Story

August 24, 2014

My friend and host family little sister, Kristen, posted this recently on her blog zozuafricanus.  Last year she was placed in Foya, Lofa County, which is very close to the border and the first place Ebola entered Liberia from Guinea.  The person she so poignantly describes here recently lost his life fighting the disease.  Kristen’s story is a stark reminder that talented and dedicated Liberians are sacrificing the most to contain this epidemic and, in the end, the county will take years (not WHO’s months) to recover from the loss.

Thank you, Tamba, for your courage and thank you, Kristen, for sharing his story.

A Hero’s Story

Fortitude: Be brave. Courage is the noblest of all attainments.
—The Woodcraft Laws

Normally, for fairly obvious reasons, these blog posts are about me – my experiences and feelings.  However, in light of recent events, I want to dedicate this entry to a person that I’ll be calling Tamba.

The international world has suddenly become fascinated by the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and all the news outlets are telling heart-wrenching tales of American citizens being evacuated, exposed, and infected.  The world has zeroed-in on the inspiring courage and devotion of all the international aid workers striving tirelessly to end this epidemic that’s killing hundreds of poor, ignorant African villagers.  While the sacrifices and efforts of international organizations are indeed incredible and admirable, I want to talk about another side of the Ebola outbreak that is getting less coverage in the Western media. And it starts with my friend Tamba.

Back in March, before all of this started, I was at the hospital waiting to meet with a few of the hospital staff to discuss a potential health-related project.  Tamba shuffled in about 30 minutes late (frustrating, but predictably Liberian), brandishing a large stick of sugar cane that he gifted to me. He slumped into a chair and apologized for his tardiness, explaining that he had been up all night with a patient who had been losing fluids by the liter from diarrhea and vomiting, showing signs of a worryingly contagious hemorrhagic fever.  The members of the meeting began to discuss the protocols and dangers associated with a Lassa fever outbreak. There had been reports of something resembling Lassa fever in Guinea, and now it appeared to have moved to Liberia.

Three of the people, not counting myself, at that meeting were expats, and immediately resolved to avoid any physical contact with patients at the hospital, even going as far to say they might return to their countries of origin if an outbreak really did occur.  Tamba smiled quietly and then launched into a tirade about the lack of supplies at the hospital, which was currently out of gloves, gauze, and sutures.  The hospital never stocked medicine, forcing patients to travel to a pharmacy to buy the prescribed medicine and return to the hospital for treatment. Those at the hospital who tried to observe the proper sanitary procedures in order to avoid the spread of disease and infection were forced to buy their own gloves and cleansing alcohol.

Two days later, the patient at the hospital was confirmed as an Ebola case, and all the expats at that meeting (including myself) left to escape the disease.  Tamba stayed, not even for a moment considering going back to his home in Monrovia.  While I was waiting for the all-clear to return, Tamba watched two of his colleagues at the hospital die after exposure to the virus.  He worked 24-48 hour shifts as many other workers from the hospital fled and more cases manifested themselves.  In the face of mounting distrust of hospital workers in the community, Tamba went to work every day and advised people on various ways to prevent the spread of Ebola, even after the hospital was almost attacked by a mob of angry, grieving people attempting to recover the body of an Ebola victim. Every time I called him and asked how he was, his response was always, “I am fine; I am doing well.  We are working and praying for this outbreak to finish.”

When I returned, I asked if he had ever considered leaving, and he responded, “How can I leave? There are people sick and dying here, and we need to treat them.”

He hadn’t received any payment from the hospital or the government in over 6 months because of a clerical error that left him off the payroll (a fairly common occurrence in all public institutions in Liberia).

He was among the first to volunteer to work at the isolation unit that MSF was building on the outskirts of town, and has since been splitting his time between the hospital and the isolation unit. His friends accused him of aligning himself with the white people in order to make more money.

The last time I was at site, I told him that Peace Corps was removing us, and he looked a little sad, but then he smiled.  He said, “I am glad, there’s no need for you people to be here putting yourselves in danger for this sickness. Peace Corps are doing well taking you people out of Liberia. Meanwhile, we will be here, and we will be praying for this epidemic to end soon.”

I wanted to make this entry about him because I wish the world were talking more about people like Tamba.  Because when all the international organizations leave to protect their people, it’s people like Tamba that are left trying to end an epidemic with hope and rubbing alcohol.  Right now, the Ebola story is about West African victims and international heroes, by and large ignoring the thousands of Liberian, Guinean, and Sierra Leonean health workers that are putting their lives at risk to fight Ebola in their communities – that have been struggling for months without enough aid or supplies before the world realized that it’s a problem when people are dying by the hundreds, even if it’s happening in Africa.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rebecca Stanton permalink
    August 25, 2014 12:40 pm

    R.B.,

    Thank you for sharing this story, and thank you for your posts and passion for our friends in Liberia. My husband and I are missionaries at a Baptist boarding school just outside of Monrovia; we came to the States June 30 for a conference, not knowing we would not be allowed to return. We are praying for our friends and praying to return soon.

    Keep telling the stories of the unsung heros.

    Becky “R.B.” Stanton International Ministries

    Sent using OWA for iPad ________________________________

    • August 25, 2014 2:00 pm

      Good to hear from you, fellow RB! I’m sorry to hear that you’re unexpectedly ‘trapped’ in America too but hopeful things will improve soon and we can all return to ‘normal’ life. Thank you for your dedication to and work for Liberian students. I hope you’ve been able to stay in contact with them small and that they have not been effected. (I am exceptionally lucky that it hasn’t hit close to any of my ‘family’ yet.) I’ll keep your students and colleagues in my thoughts during this difficult time.

      RB

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