Today Mama Sesay went home.
Having come into our Ebola Management Centre three weeks ago, with a positive blood test, she had slowly become increasingly stronger, her symptoms had gradually disappeared, and her blood test was now negative. Giving her that result was the happy task of our mental health team; and after further counselling and advice from them, she was ready to rejoin her family and community.
In my new position as part of the outreach team that will help to monitor and control the epidemic out in the villages, along with the health promotion team I accompanied Mama Sesay on this great occasion. To survive a disease like Ebola, she was one of the lucky ones. She’d come to us before the disease had become uncontrollable, before the haemorrhagic symptoms had started, before the viral load was so high that we would not have been able to save her. As it was, we were able to help boost her immune system so that she could fight the virus and overcome it.
As we drove Mama Sesay home, I thought with sadness of a young boy who had not been so lucky. He had come into the centre a few days ago, so weak and breathless that he had to be carried on a stretcher out of the ambulance. He gave his age as fourteen, but looked about ten. As he sat weakly in the Triage area for a quick assessment, Robi, the doctor in charge of the running of the centre, with massive Ebola experience, shook his head.
“He won’t make it,” he said sadly. For some reason I had an intuition that this boy would somehow beat the odds. So I was devastated when I came on duty the following morning, looked at the board where all our patients’ numbers were displayed, and couldn’t see his. And then I saw it. With a circle and a cross beside it. Under the heading “Morgue”. Robi had been right and my misplaced optimism wrong.
But now we were on a good news journey. The land-cruiser bumped its way down the dusty, red road, lined with tall grasses and clusters of palm trees. Makeshift barriers, in place since the “lock-down” to prevent people moving from village to village, were raised to let through our vehicle with its well-known emblem. Apart from little children calling out “Opoto!” (white person) as we passed, the villages were quiet, houses locked and shuttered. A sign indicating the primary school pointed towards a building that was silent and empty. Schools have been closed since the start of the academic year, the only teaching being carried out over the radio.
As we neared her village of Yoni Bana, Mama Memuna Sesay let a small smile creep over her face. But her happiness at returning must have been marred by grief: grief for her mother, who had died from Ebola in her home, grief for her pregnant sister who had also died. She had been caring for her mother along with Memuna, and pregnant women are exceptionally vulnerable.
But there was still a large group waiting to greet Mama Sesay as we drove up, and as she stepped from the land-cruiser clapping and cheering erupted. As her three small grandchildren ran up to hug her, she beamed. It was a good moment.
One of our health promoters gave a message in the local Themne language, explaining that Mama Sesay was completely free from Ebola, that she no longer carried the infection and she had a certificate to prove it. He continued by reiterating the general Ebola message of ABC – Avoid Body Contact – and of reminding people that they should call the Alert line if anyone showed any of the symptoms of Ebola. This would go through to the District Command Centre, and a chain of reaction would begin.
After shaking her hand – the first contact I had had with her without being protected by our personal protective equipment – with many waves and cheers we left Mama Sesay, happily back once more in her community, an Ebola Survivor.