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A Doctor's Gift To The Brave Nurses Of Sierra Leone

Nurse Issa French with his wife Anita, who's holding a copy of <em>Time</em> magazine's issue devoted to front-line workers. He's earned that title, treating more than 420 Ebola patients.
Amy Maxmen for NPR
Nurse Issa French with his wife Anita, who's holding a copy of Time magazine's issue devoted to front-line workers. He's earned that title, treating more than 420 Ebola patients.

It was a gift of about $600, to make up for wages that weren't paid. A gesture of gratitude, it may be the encouragement embattled nurses need to continue working with the specter of Ebola ever-present.

In the darkest hours, bonds formed between Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious disease doctor from Boston University who volunteered to fight Ebola last year, and the West African nurses who cared for patients beside her.

Bhadelia's local partners often went without the pay they were due during the outbreak, and Bhadelia felt a growing urge to support them after she returned to the U.S. Last month, she launched a crowdfund site to send her Sierra Leonean colleagues cash.

Their bond began in late August 2014, when Bhadelia arrived at Kenema Government Hospital in eastern Sierra Leone, as part of a team organized by the World Health Organization. By then, Ebola had killed hundreds of people, including West Africa's only Ebola expert, Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, who headed the hospital's Ebola ward. His team labored on, often without decent protective gear and the "hazard pay" they had been promised for the dangerous work.

Bhadelia was inspired by their bravery — and they, by her. One afternoon, Bhadelia shook with a wave of panic as she struggled to insert an intravenous line of fluid into a child in the throes of Ebola, while another child died beside her. A nurse in the ward, Issa French, gripped her arm, and steadied her. French later recalled, "When I realized what a sacrifice Dr. Nadia had made to come here and help us, I knew that I needed to keep working."

French and Bhadelia share other memories: They remember a girl — perhaps five years old — who had been found in an abandoned home beside a corpse that tested positive for Ebola. The child tested positive too. When Bhadelia made her rounds in the ward, the girl trailed behind her. In between shifts, Bhadelia, French and other nurses talked about the charming child. If she survived, they agreed Bhadelia might try to adopt her. But the girl died.

Nurse Isata Kallon outside of the triage tent.
/ Amy Maxmen for NPR
Amy Maxmen for NPR
Nurse Isata Kallon outside of the triage tent.

I met French and other Kenema Hospital staff in December, long after Bhadelia had returned home. When some of the health workers told me how they toiled without pay, I spent another month in Sierra Leone — February — trying to figure out why. In an investigative feature in Newsweek, I revealed that part of the issue was inherent to the underfunded health system, and part was due to how little Ebola money had been earmarked for staff in public hospitals and clinics in the first place: less than 2 percent of $3.3 billion dollars donated from rich countries.

Rather than wait for justice, Bhadelia distributed a total of $4,300 in cash to eight of her colleagues in Kenema in July. Most received $600 — equal to several weeks of "hazard pay." As she raises more money on the site, she'll continue the support.

French, who has treated more than 420 Ebola patients, used the money to rent a new apartment on a hillside for his family. His former one-room flat was located beside a river that flooded the house in the rainy season.

Helena MacCarthy outside of the break room — in a tin hut — for nurses working at the Ebola isolation unit.
/ Amy Maxmen for NPR
Amy Maxmen for NPR
Helena MacCarthy outside of the break room — in a tin hut — for nurses working at the Ebola isolation unit.

Likewise, nurse Helena MacCarthy put her allotment toward a house under construction since 2013 (in Sierra Leone, houses are built by bricklayers bit by bit as the money trickles in). Currently, she shares a two-room structure with her mother and four children. MacCarthy brimmed with pride and anticipation as she gave me a tour of the bigger spot, including a small garden she's beginning that has corn, cassava and a young palm oil tree. The house still needs work, but the walls and roof are in place.

Meanwhile, Zainab Kanneh, a 24-year-old nurse who had toiled at the hospital during her pregnancy, put the money toward a wedding to celebrate her marriage to the father of her baby boy. Another nurse told me she would give some of her money to the orphaned son of a fellow nurse at the hospital who succumbed to Ebola last year. One nurse bought a dress, shoes, and gifts for her family for Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic holiday at the end of Ramadan.

Ambulance driver Christopher White invested in a small business: He bought a motorcycle to rent out to motorcycle taxi drivers — a more common mode of transportation in Kenema than cars. His friend at the hospital, who bravely prepared Ebola-infected corpses for burial in the morgue throughout the outbreak, made a related move. He's given up hope of a position on payroll at the morgue, and put his cash toward driving school. With a license, he hopes to become a taxi driver.

Bhadelia recognizes the shortcomings of her campaign. It's unfair, only reaching a fraction of deserving staff across the nation. It will not fix Sierra Leone's broken health system. It will not alter problems with international aid. "I battled with whether it was the right thing to do," Bhadalia says. "I can't guarantee anything about what that money will be used for, and it's not sustainable. But in the end," she says, "it came down to the fact that these people are not strangers to me. We raise money for our friends and family here in the U.S. when they need it, so this is the same thing."

Freelance writer recently traveled to Sierra Leone for "The Next Outbreak," a digital collaboration of The GroundTruth Project and NOVA Next.

Tweet to Dr. Nahid Bhadelia @BhadeliaMD

Tweet to Amy Maxmen @amymaxmen

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amy Maxmen
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