The pending embrace

Pre-Ebola, Douglas Lyon had been in Sierra Leone twice before: the first time during the 1991-2002 civil war, and the second time just after the conflict ended, in both cases working for MSF.

Pre-Ebola, Douglas Lyon had been in Sierra Leone twice before: the first time during the 1991-2002 civil war, and the second time just after the conflict ended, in both cases working for MSF. It has been 12 years since he last worked with the organisation, “because sometimes one wants to have a normal life”. But whilst reading the newspaper in his house in Oregon one day, and “seeing the magnitude of the growing epidemic”, he felt the time had come to return.

“As an epidemiologist I knew I could provide many useful skills to MSF´s work. I am also aware that the experience I acquired throughout this last decade, during which I alternated between projects with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was going to help. So I called New York and made myself available to my old colleagues.”

The moment he arrived at the first of his two destinations in Sierra Leone, the Ebola treatment centre in Kailahun, Douglas was happily surprised. Three Sierra Leonean MSF health workers  whom he had known back in 2002, on his last visit to the country, were also there.

“It must have been a very special moment,” I said. “Yes, it was very emotional,” he agreed. “I desperately wanted to hug them… but, because of  Ebola, we couldn’t even touch. Finding someone after such a long time, someone with whom you lived through such difficult times, such convoluted, complicated moments, and you have to limit yourself to saying: ’Hey Mohamed, what have you been up to all these years? How has life treated you?’, while keeping at all times a safe distance between us.”

“Mohamed and I had established a very close relationship,” Douglas continued. “At the time, I wrote him a recommendation letter, hardly three paragraphs long, but nonetheless full of all the praises he more than richly deserved. To this day he still keeps it in a plastic folder to ensure it isn´t damaged. He showed it to me the day after our reunion, and as I reread it, I remembered exactly how much I respected this guy. Along with the letter, Mohamed brought a handful of photographs of the team we had been training back then… And all the memories of long ago flooded back. Time flies by so fast!”

“Those were hard times. The civil war in Sierra Leone lasted 10 years. It forced half of the population to flee their homes and left close to 70,000 victims, amongst them the murdered and the mutilated. And yet, in these past six weeks, I have asked many people, 'What was worse for you, Ebola or the war?' All, invariably, give the same answer. 'Ebola. With Ebola, no one can feel safe'.”

“And did you last the whole six weeks without touching anyone?” I asked. “Never? Not even a little?”

Douglas replied: “Once you’re there, you know there are certain rules that must be respected – for the good of everyone, oneself included. The only moment during which we touch somebody is when we´re wearing the protective suit in the isolation ward. There, we take the opportunity to hug each other, to feel closer to one another. Those seconds during which your colleague is helping you to put on your goggles can bring you incredibly close to a person. In fact, physically, it´s when you are closest. You have, in front of you, just centimetres away, a colleague who understands, who´s going through the same as you, and who on top of it all is doing his work as best as is humanly possible to try and ensure nothing happens to you.  They’re protecting you, and naturally you feel closely tied to them.”

“And Mohamed?” I asked. “Did you never coincide with him whilst wearing the suit? That would have been a good moment to give each other a hug!”

“Yes, it would have been a good opportunity. But Mohamed is a radio operator, so we´ve been left wanting. But at least you have the consolation of knowing you can embrace the cured patients whom we discharge. And we know that such a small gesture helps them a great deal. It’s a way of demonstrating to the community that they are free of the virus, that they no longer pose a threat to anyone. And it is the only moment during which we make an exception and allow ourselves to touch somebody without wearing the suit.”

Fernando G Calero is a communications officer for Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), currently based  in Monrovia, Liberia. Fernando wrote this post on 5th November 2014.