Kenema

What It’s Like To Be An Ebola Survivor In Sierra Leone (PHOTOS)

Via Huffington Post, 10/10/2014

Mohammed Elshamy is an Anadolu Agency photojournalist covering the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Through his work in Sierra Leone, he was able to meet a 38-year-old mother of four who survived Ebola, named Rigiatu Kamara. Kamara lives in a very poor area with no services like clean water or electricity. Below, Elshamy shares Kamara’s story of being infected with Ebola — and surviving — with HuffPost.

“One day, I felt I had a serious fever. I was cooking at the evening, with plans to catch up with one of my friends that I promised I would take her to church, but I couldn’t go due to the fever,” she remembered.

“I called my man [husband] and asked him to cook in my place because I was sick. I took water with Panadol, then I went to the toilet as I also found I had diarrhea. And it all turns bad; my head and throat ached, my legs felt weak, and my back hurt so bad,” Kamara recounted.

“My body was very weak; I heard on the radio that if anyone has symptoms like fever and diarrhea, they should go to the hospital and report,” she added.

ebola survival

Kamara poses with her husband Baibai in Kenema on Aug. 26. “I was actually happy to see him put his hands over her shoulder,” Elshamy told HuffPost. “For me, it means a lot that they faced the virus and now [she] survived it with her husband.”

A day later, the couple went to a hospital for testing, where a nurse asked Kamara if she had recently come into contact with any sick people.

“I said ‘maybe,’ so they took a blood sample and said I should come [back the] following day,” she said.

Kamara remembers breathing a sigh of relief when the doctors told her that she had tested negative for Ebola.

“I was happy, but I was still feeling weak,” she said.

Her relief, however, didn’t last long. Two days later, two men from the hospital came to Kamara’s house to break the news.

“They said I shouldn’t touch my kids; no sexual intercourse — that I’m infected by Ebola,” she said. “They said my [blood] sample had to go through three stages, the second and third of which confirmed that I had tested positive for Ebola — so I was asked to follow them to hospital to be put in the Ebola unit there,” she recalled. “Meanwhile,” she added, “my children and husband were quarantined for 21 days.”

ebola survival

Kamara looks at photos from her youth in Kenema, Sierra Leone, on Aug. 26.

Talking about her feelings when she was infected, she said she felt there was no mercy in the hospital. Kamara was admitted to a ward packed with Ebola patients, where only a few people were available to help with treatment.

“People died on a daily basis when I was in the ward. For days, we weren’t served food; there was no mercy. I just thank God I survived,” Kamara said.

“Whatever I ate was later vomited; they don’t serve milk, nothing … My husband brought medicine, food and Maltina [a local beverage],” she added.

After five days of treatment, Kamara tested negative for Ebola and the hospital said she could be discharged, although she was still suffering diarrhea.

A doctor at the hospital asked her to stay for a few more days. Five days later, the diarrhea was gone and she was discharged with an official certificate giving her a clean bill of health.

ebola survival

Kamara shows the recovery document approved by the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health. The certificate reads: “The above named patient is been seen and managed at the Ebola isolation unit. Kenema Governmental Hospital. He/She is now clinically, physically and mentally fit to go home to rejoin his/her community. He/She poses no risk of infection to the community.”

However, she returned home only to get the cold shoulder from her neighbors, who feared they might catch the disease from the former patient.

“One of my friends stopped talking to me because I was an Ebola patient,” Kamara said.

She is now helpless and jobless as many in the community continue to avoid her — despite her certificate.

ebola survival

Kamara picks up a towel from a washing line in Kenema, Sierra Leone, on Aug. 26.

“I used to be a seller, but now it’s all gone. School will start, but I don’t have the money to pay the school fees for my kids. I’m bankrupt,” she said.

“When I was discharged [from the hospital], they just gave me 30,000 Leone [around $7]. They didn’t even give me medicine,” she added. “All we have now is dry bulgur — that’s what we have for food,” she said. “This morning, I found nothing to eat.”

This piece has been edited for length and clarity. Additional research by Damon Dahlen.

This story is part of “Inside an Outbreak,” a HuffPost series taking you to the front lines of the world’s worst Ebola outbreak. For more information on how you can help, visit HuffPost Impact.

Ebola denial: Escaped patients and besieged hospitals in Sierra Leone

How to Ignore a Plague: Escaped Ebola patients, besieged hospitals, and deadly denial in West Africa

By Umaru Fofana

In the doorway of an Ebola isolation facility in Kenema, Sierra Leone, stood a group of 10 or so patients. I could see them from a distance—I’d been advised by the medics not to get too close since I was not wearing protective clothing. They were mostly women, but I also saw two children: a boy and a girl. Ebola was eating him up. I was later told that the boy’s name was Kinnie, and that he was five years old. I shouted across to him, but he was too emaciated and weak to reply.

Inside the isolation wards were dozens of people who had tested positive for the rampaging hemorrhagic fever, including at least five nurses. They had apparently been infected by patients who had not been suspected of carrying the virus. Until recently, health workers didn’t use protective gloves unless they knew they were treating a confirmed case of Ebola—even though the virus is hard to diagnose, easily transmitted through bodily fluids, and Sierra Leone is in the middle of an outbreak that has stricken more than 300 and killed 92. One of the nurses died a few days ago. Her name was Sarah, and she got married last December. She was a few weeks pregnant.

Despite the danger facing these medical workers, they are being blamed for the disease by the public—a public so poorly informed about Ebola that many didn’t know of its existence before the outbreak began.

A few yards from the isolation facility lay the main wards of the Kenema Government Hospital. Many patients there fled after one of the nurses tested positive, headed for who knows where. And a couple of days after I visited, a colleague of mine watched relatives of Ebola patients pelt the hospital itself with stones. Confirmed Ebola cases are quarantined, and the attackers accused the nurses of sorcery and demanded their sick relatives be released to them — if they were dead, they said, they wanted the bodies to bury themselves. Such is the respect and reverence people have for the dead that the way Ebola victims are laid to rest is hard for most to stomach. Medics place them into a bag, and bury them without ceremony in a mass grave. The confrontation became so violent that police used tear gas to disperse the crowds, and have remained in and around the hospital since.

It is amazing—shocking—to see the denial of so many people here. Just 500 yards from the hospital, a group of revelers stood outside a video center (as cinemas are known here), pulling on cigarettes and even sharing the same butt. Backslapping and hugging having just come from the unventilated room. Sweating profusely in the 90-degree heat. There are other such video centers throughout Kenema, all over Sierra Leone. Beneath the veneer of that excitement and camaraderie lies the acrid reality that Ebola is tearing the country apart. The next day, at the Holy Trinity Secondary School, I saw scores of high school kids playing soccer. Some had removed their white uniforms to avoid them getting dirty, and their bodies glistened. The longer they played, the more they sweated, and the more dangerous the game became for them. But they were either oblivious to the dangers of a virus that can kill nine in 10, often by internal bleeding and organ failure, or they did not care.

Kenema hosts the only Ebola-testing laboratory in the country, one of the best in the world, run by the U.S.-based Metabiota and Tulane University. And yet some people here are even questioning the existence of the disease. At a roadside store selling candies and sodas, I talked with a high school student who gave his name only as Konneh. “Ebola is unreal,” he told me. He peeled a banana and guffawed before biting into it. “I have not seen anyone who has suffered from or died of it,” he said as he munched.

There are other conspiracy theories flying fast and thick. My mother fell ill last week, while I was on a short trip abroad. She was vomiting and needed to see a medic, but some of my relatives advised her against going to hospital. They had heard rumors of a desperate attempt to stem the spread of Ebola: patients with signs of the disease, which include symptoms as broad as fever, were being injected with poison by health workers. It was only after my return that I could persuade her to seek treatment.

Three days after the hospital was attacked—and more than a month after the outbreak began—President Ernest Bai Koroma finally ended his curious silence, and addressed the nation. He said that “the national efforts of patriotic citizens from all regions, all political parties and districts must not be derailed by a misguided few.” He added: “Anyone who knowingly harbors an Ebola victim without notifying health authorities is also guilty of an offense and we will ensure that the full penalty of the law is meted out on them.” But he fell short of declaring the disease a public health emergency, which would have put the country’s resources toward the fight, and he has yet to visit any of the areas affected.

Koroma’s slow response recalls the civil war of the 1990s. Like Ebola, it started abroad, in Liberia, and snaked across the border. The army was ill-prepared; war was strange to the soldiers; many ordinary people took it lightly—I dare say, scornfully. It was not until fighting reached Freetown that the government made a serious effort to end it. By then, tens of thousands were dead. With the casualties in neighboring countries, the death toll from the current Ebola outbreak has already topped 500, and figures keep rising every day. No one knows how many more have died outside of health facilities, or are mistakenly being treated for another disease. Médecins Sans Frontières, an aid organization, has described the situation in the region as “out of control.”

People who actually acknowledge the situation are uncertain about what to do now. At my wife’s church—she’s Catholic—the body of Christ as epitomized by bread is now dipped into wine by a glove-wearing priest. Handshakes have been minimized in mosques in this Muslim-dominated country. “It is the hard tradition-breaking sacrifices we have been forced to make,” a Friday worshiper told me. At one restaurant I visited, the owner had placed a bottle of chlorinated water at the door; everyone who entered was asked to wash their hands with it. But the chemical has become hard to find, and the owner of the restaurant told me that the price of chlorine has tripled.

Meanwhile, suspected Ebola patients are doing exactly what public health workers would like them not to do, which is to move around and potentially infect others. Almost 60 have disappeared after testing positive, officials say. “They may have died somewhere after infecting others,” one doctor told me, looking worried. One of the escapees was a man named Mohamed Swarray, who fled Kenema last month for Freetown, the capital, where he went into hiding. Police found him a week or so later, after he was spotted by someone who knew him in Kenema, and who had heard the announcements on local radio calling for information on his whereabouts. By then Swarray had visited a hospital in the capital, and may have infected the nurse who treated him. (The authorities are also on the lookout for his mother with whom he is believed to have escaped.)

I was standing outside the Kenema hospital when a new-looking ambulance raced into the hospital compound, sirens blaring. The driver wound down his window and asked shakily in a local language where the Ebola ward was. I pointed it out, and the driver meandered toward it, dodging the potholes made muddy by the country’s rainy season. I was curious as to how an ambulance in this part of the country could not know where the Ebola ward was, and suspected they must have come from Freetown. Moments later I saw Mohamed Swarray being guided to the isolation ward by a nurse in protective clothing. He looked hopeless and forlorn, as if he were being led to the gallows.