Remembering Dr Khan: Sierra Leone’s heroic EVD virologist

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By Makmid Kamara, EngAyde

Sierra Leone's only specialist virologist for viral haemorrhagic fever

Dr Khan: 1975-2014: Sierra Leone’s only specialist virologist for viral haemorrhagic fever

Like a murderer’s hand lurking in the shadows and clasping a dagger, Ebola has struck down up to 11,279 helpless victims sometimes one after the other and other times en masse across 3 West African countries in just 14 months.  According to WHO’s latest  Ebola Situation Report, as many as 880 health care workers have been infected by Ebola Virus Disease whilst they tried to save the lives of others.

Since the outbreak first appeared in Guinea in May 2014, up to 510 health care workers have fallen prey to the marauding beast of a disease, leaving many more un-cared for or with limited prospects as signs of the epidemic waning begin to surface across the three most affected countries. 11 senior doctors out of Sierra Leone’s meagre pool of 120 doctors have lost their lives to Ebola.

On July 29 2014, Sierra Leone recorded the death of a local health care hero among heroes. The country experienced an irreparable loss when 39 year old Dr Sheik Umar Khan succumbed to the dreaded Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). He was the only qualified Chief Physician of the only medical unit in the world devoted exclusively to patient care and research of viral haemorrhagic fever. He has not been replaced. He can never be replaced. It was perhaps the most notable tragedy at the beginning of the crisis.

One year on, Sierra Leoneans at home and across the world remember this day with grief. We grieve that the nation’s cradle of young, talented and selfless professionals like Dr Khan is crumbling on an almost daily basis. We grieve that one year after Dr Khan’s death, remaining other health care workers continue to be stretched to their professional limits. Dr Khan, in the words of one his former colleague, Dr Bausch, “was at the heart of the response – seeing patients, directing activities, constantly on the phone with government officials and countless others coordinating the control efforts.” He stayed in Kenema in Eastern Sierra Leone, to provide his care to infected patients even though he had the chance to leave his post. Like a true hero, his thirst to save and his desire to serve overshadowed any thought of leaving the country for a safer location. He was there when needed.

We at EngAyde, would like to use this opportunity to mourn for the souls of Dr Khan and the 510 West African healthcare workers who have died as a result of the EVD. But more importantly, we want to celebrate their lives and collective achievements. We want to remember their sacrifices and remind the world of the need to care for the Ebola healthcare workers.

Like Dr Khan, many local healthcare workers in Sierra Leone embrace their own mortality and despair by blazing through the grim circumstances of their hazardous occupational context; determined to spread simple acts of love and care, without recognition or fanfare. Their dedication to patients in the absence of decent health care systems and infrastructure is remarkable, to say the least.

From the ruined health clinics in the remote towns of Kailahun in the Eastern region of Sierra Leone, where kerosene lamps serve as sources of light for complex procedures such as childbirth; to the mud house clinics in a far-flung villages in Pujehun in the South, where wheel-barrows are the ambulances; to dilapidated buildings in Port Loko in the North Western region, where patients have to boil and bring hot water from their homes because there is none at the clinics; Sierra Leone’s health care provision for the most part was tragically dire. The country’s capital city Freetown was not spared from the country’s pre Ebola scourge of deplorable healthcare infrastructure. People living in dump tips on the beachfront of Kroo Bay contend with cholera,  diarrhoea and other diseases for the most part of 6 months a year, during the heavy raining season.

Any healthcare provision in such a place, where the life expectancy is even lower than the country’s average age of 45 years, is likely to leave both health care worker and patient with further risks of major infections. Irrespective of these grim circumstances our heroic comrades, expect less and continue care and respect their communities and their patients.

Sadly, things haven’t changed since the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) sneaked into our beloved country, ravaging its existing fragile healthcare system beyond repair. The trust between patients and healthcare workers waned. What was once a relationship of mutual respect and preservation of dignity disappeared and was replaced with suspicion and uncertainty. Healthcare workers became prone not only to Ebola, but to maligned reactions from their own communities and social networks.

So even with their resilience and courage, there is a limit. Sierra Leone’s healthcare workers are humans too. Their lives matter. They have families. They come from communities and they can get tired. Everyone is tired now. Everyone desperately wants Ebola to dissipate into thin air and never return. Those who are dead and gone and those alive, all want normalcy to return. But normalcy can only return when concrete actions are taken for long term impact. This has to start with prioritising care and support for our brothers and sisters in the Ebola frontline and in the backline (in labs, etc.).

If Dr Khan and all those healthcare workers whose life Ebola has snatched away were alive today, they’ll be demanding for two things- care and continuing psychosocial support for their colleagues. So we are calling for a set of actions that we believe may make the souls of the departed genuinely rest in peace.

At a national and international level, let us remember to put the health care workers at the heart of all long term health infrastructure rebuilding programmes. Let us think of systematic and sustained ways to refresh their tired hands with compassion, love and recognition. Let us celebrate their achievements.

Collectively, as Sierra Leonean citizens and global citizens of the world, let us work together to put Ebola to shame by empowering our health care workers with love, care and resources to continue the fight against the ongoing impact of the dreaded Ebola disease. Let us accept them into communities and not reject them because of stigma. Let us demand for better training and capacity support to enable them to deliver better healthcare in the future. Let us pay those medical college fees. Let us volunteer our time or resources where possible. Let us offer burial workers and community workers jobs so they can continue to support their families, beyond Ebola.

Let us #careforthecarer If Ebola nor taya, #wenorgotaya! [If Ebola does not tire, neither shall we]. #slebolaheroes #ourvillageourchildren #slremembers.

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