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“That’s Why I Stayed”: A Doctor’s Struggle Against Ebola at Monrovia

Lent with the Brothers of Saint John of God (3)

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“That’s why I stayed,” said Congolese Doctor Senga Omeonga, himself a survivor of the sickness, who is at the service of the sick of the Ebola fever in Liberia.
In the framework of our Lenten journey to Saint John of God’s country, to discover this constant practice in the course of centuries of works of mercy, brought to light by the Extraordinary Jubilee, this account gives witness to the vitality of the charism founded on a fourth vow – hospitality.
The Hospitaller Brothers of Saint John of God founded Saint Joseph’s Catholic Hospital in 1963 at Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
An earlier conversation with Brother Alain Samuel Jeancler was published on February 28, 2017, entitled “Brothers’ Evangelical and Universal Hospitality.” It was followed by a reflection of Father Ragonneau, SJ, in connection with Pope Francis’ Lenten Message: “To live hospitality is to receive the other as a gift,” published on March 7, 2017, on the eve of the feast of the holy Portuguese Founder. Here, then, is a third part of our Lenten course, on the occasion of the journey of the Curia’s of Rome to Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Life has resumed once again at the Saint John of God Hospital in Monrovia after the Calvary through which it passed during the Ebola epidemic, when three Brothers, one Sister and five co-workers lost their lives, while six other people contracted the virus and survived. They included the Congolese physician, Senga Omeonga, the hospital Medical Director, who has spoken about his experience in these dramatic circumstances, but looking forward with hope.
I arrived in modern Monrovia from Congo Kinshasa six years ago. I came on holiday to see the family of my nephew who had married a Liberian wife. Acting on the advice of my nephew I went to leave my CV with the Ministry of Health and that is how I began working at the public hospital in the capital. I very quickly came into contact with Sister Chantal, who also came from Congo and was Missionary Sister of the Immaculate Conception who worked at the St Joseph’s Catholic Hospital run by the Brothers of Saint John of God. She introduced me to Brother Miguel who was looking for a physician at the time and this is how I began working for this hospital as a surgeon. It must be borne in mind that the country is terribly short of doctors, with fewer than 100 for the whole country, or one per 40,000 people!
Ebola was first mentioned in March 2014 when the first cases were detected in Guinea. At the time, people said that was a long way away from us, and posed no risk in Liberia. But when the virus entered Liberia a few weeks later, we began to worry. The first case was found in a public hospital in Monrovia in May but the patient was treated as a case of typhoid fever and therefore without any special protective measures. The nurse and the doctor looking after him were infected, and that is when panic spread throughout the capital. All of us were afraid. The hospitals began to close one by one, and the situation became more and more worrying, the people were frightened, and there was no treatment centre for Ebola and no coordination, and the people were given no information. At the Saint John of God Catholic Hospital we decided, by agreement with the Provincial Superior, to keep the Hospital open because the local people had nowhere else to go for treatment. Brother Patrick was the Director of the Hospital, and he called the teams together to brief them on the Ebola virus and to explain the precautions that must to be taken, and ordered the protective materials we needed.
Being the only hospital still open anywhere in the country, it began immediately to receive numerous sick people, exercising the greatest caution. I was personally involved in taking in Ebola patients, but always using the necessary protective materials. We were checked every day and the date staff were asked to stay at home if they showed any signs of an increased temperature. On 10 July we received a woman patients who was bleeding profusely, three months pregnant. We called the duty gynecologist to examine her. Fearing that the baby might miscarry, she was quickly admitted, and the following morning, as her condition worsened and her temperature rose, we immediately triggered the protocol which entailed calling in people from the Ministry to take samples and test her for the Ebola virus.  At that time, the procedure took a long time and the woman died before we had the test results. Her brother, who was them the deputy Minister of Finance, created a furore by accusing the hospital of refusing him access to his sister. Brother Patrick, who used to visit the bedside of every single patient every morning, went to see what was happening. He went into her room and tried to take her pulse, without wearing surgical gloves. By the time he went  back to the community to wash his hands it was already too late. He fell sick following morning. We gave him all the care we could taking all the necessary precautions, but after a few days the test result from the Ministry was negative. Sister Chantal took care of him in the community, and then we began to lower our guard, but his condition worsened. We tried to transfer him to Europe for treatment, and the airline asked for a second Ebola test, which proved positive. We then realised that we were all potentially infected by the virus. There was a general sense of panic in the hospital. Everything was spinning around in my head. Some of the staff had already left, refusing to look after Brother Patrick. One day I heard him crying out and weeping. I went to see him with the carer, and we stayed by his side in our overalls. We closed down the hospital the day on which Bother Patrick was taken to the Ebola treatment centre in Monrovia on July 31.
On August 2, one of the Sisters was to make her perpetual vows. During the mass, my telephone rang. I left the chapel because I saw that the call was from the doctor who was always looking after our Brother. “Brother Patrick is dead,” he said. I told Brother George and we decided to continue to celebrate the Mass to avoid any panic. Then everyone went home. I also began to feel my temperature rising, as did all the others who had been looking after Brother Patrick. We then quarantined the whole hospital keeping, all the staff in place. In the first few days we used to meet each other quite frequently to pass the time, but then, very quickly, everyone started staying in their rooms, as the symptoms of the disease were becoming increasingly more painful. Everywhere we could hear people crying out, and I myself became so feeble, that I could barely move. Then people came to take us away to a treatment centre. Sister Chantal died that very day, together with Brother George and one female nurse.
I stayed in the treatment centre for three weeks with the others. Six of us died, including Brother Miguel, while six others survived after going through what was nothing short of a Via Crucis. Nobody wanted to come to feed us and no health care personnel were available. Living conditions had become absolutely inhumane in the centre. Throughout this time I can assure you that so many things come to mind. How was this happening to us? I thought about my family, I prayed so much, and this helped me to hold on. Eventually, I left the centre, cured, on August 27.
I often think back to my Brothers and co-workers who had died as heroes, agreeing to care for the patients entrusted to them, even at the cost of their own lives. This experience changed me greatly, in so many different ways. I realised that we had been like soldiers at the Front. We had accepted our profession as carers, and we had to do everything possible for the good of our sick patients, following the example of our Founder, Saint John of God.
We re-opened the Hospital in November after acquiring all new materials to replace everything that had had to be incinerated and destroyed to disinfect all the buildings and facilities; we changed all our working methods, and trained our personnel to ensure that the preventive measures put in place would remain in place permanently thereafter. And when Ebola broke out in the country again, not one single patient died for lack of care. The fact that I had been infected myself enabled me to help the other members of staff enable people arriving with the virus to shake off the stigma attached to it before. I am now engaged on ensuring that such disaster will never be able to happen again, as a means of paying tribute to all those who died and in our hospital. Those of us who had the good fortune to emerge unscathed have been entrusted with a mission, and we have to take responsibility for it. That is why I have stayed on. And thanks to the efforts of all the hospital staff, the new community of Brothers, and the support of all the Provinces from every part of the world, what everyone here knows as “The Catholic Hospital” is now acknowledged throughout the country and by the WHO not only as a benchmark for the quality of care, but also in the sphere of preventive health.
BOX 1. Giving one’s life for the sick
One of the distinguishing features of the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God is that it takes 4 vows. As a rule, Religious Brothers and Sisters take the three vows common to every Religious Institute – poverty, chastity and obedience. These vows are taken for one purpose alone: to imitate Jesus by serving others and to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ throughout our world by announcing the Kingdom of God. The fourth vow taken by the Brothers of Saint John of God is the vow of Hospitality, defined as follows in the words of Article 22 of the Order’s Constitutions:With the vow of hospitality we dedicate ourselves, under obedience to our superiors, to helping the sick and those in need, undertaking to provide them with all those services they need, even the most humble and the most dangerous to our own lives, in imitation of Christ, who loved us even to the extent of dying for our salvation.”
BOX 2. Saint Joseph’s Catholic Hospital
Saint Joseph’s Catholic Hospital was founded by the Hospitaller Brothers of Saint John of God in 1963 in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. It has 121 beds in various different services including A&E, a Maternity Unit – 1,500 births a year – four operating theatres, eight medical consultation rooms… 178 salaried employees, including 11 physicians, treating about 100 patients every day. Since 1972, the Brothers have also been running a dispensary in the heart of a slum area on the outskirts of Monrovia.

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