The closest thing to hell

When I arrived at the Ebola Management Center (EMC) in Foya, two weeks ago, it felt like this place was from another dimension, but it is now part of my routine.

When I arrived at the Ebola Management Center (EMC) in Foya, two weeks ago, it felt like this place was from another dimension, but it is now part of my routine.

I have grown accustomed to washing my hands in a 0.05% chlorine solution every five  minutes, and having my feet sprayed with an even higher concentration, a 0.5% chlorine solution, every time I enter or exit. Everything smells like chlorine here.

I've also become used to the process of getting dressed in the Personal Protection Equipment that becomes a portable sauna in which I immediately start to sweat in a way I never imagined possible. I’ve accepted that my body is capable of sweating up to 1 litre every time I enter the high-risk zone, and that I will be soaking wet by the time I leave, as if I’ve taken a shower while wearing my surgical uniform.

It’s not the most comfortable and it doesn’t make me particularly attractive, but oh well… my team has also grown accustomed to seeing me at my worst.

The first time I entered the high-risk zone, going through orange fences and restricted access to enter a temporary building that has lasted too long, with gravely ill patients lying on mattresses on the ground, I though this was the closest thing to hell; far from my usual white and spotless hospitals.

But the truth is over the last two weeks here, it no longer seems so bad. In fact, I have discharged several patients with their wonderful “cured from Ebola” certificates, and that never stops being the best part of the day.

The one thing I can never stop wondering about, though is whether my patients ever become accustomed to this place?

I try once and again to put myself in their shoes. I imagine I’ve spent my entire life in a remote village, where I’m only in touch with the same people all the time. Without anyone new ever arriving, except for a newborn or a rare guest. The same community, we are all family. And one day, one guest arrives sick and a few days later, some of our community members fall ill. A truck full of strangers comes to visit to discover we are sick; dressed in yellow suits that make them resemble space birds, something out of a fiction movie or a nightmare.

These strange characters seem affable, but spray our homes with a stinky substance, burn several of our belongings and leave the rest of our possessions soaking in this stinking water and, to top it all off, take all of us who are sick in the truck, drive for a couple of hours and leave us at an extremely strange place. They bring people who speak our language with them, and they explain why they are spraying and burning, and tell us of this new dangerous plague, but it’s still otherworldly.

The first thing we see when we exit the truck are more individuals dressed in yellow, spraying everything in our path, as if we were a plague. They explain this is for safety, but how could we possibly understand something so different from what we’ve seen our whole lives… Some white people ask us questions about our health and take our temperature. They insistently ask us whom we’ve come in contact with over the last days. As if taking care of our sick was wrong. Then they finally explain those of us who are sick must remain here. At this place that is so strange and filled with tents and orange fences, persons in disguise, and I can barely understand their strange accents, covered in masks that resemble duck bills. Each in a separate room. We are not allowed to touch or go near one another. Everything smells weird and is wet. I’m not feeling too ill. I am, definitely, very scared.

Can you imagine? To them, this must definitely be the worst of their nightmares. I try to be amiable here, but nobody can see me smiling under my suit and doubt I have convinced anyone that they are safe here.  

Citlali wrote this post on 16th October 2014. She is working in Foya, Liberia, where our teams are providing a comprehensive package of medical care, outreach activities and education, health promotion, training and contact tracing. Find out more about MSF's work on Ebola