Fighting Ebola: One Man’s Story of Life and Death in Sierra Leone

As Liberia declares itself Ebola-free, one health care worker looks back at a time during the height of the outbreak in West Africa when duty called.

Richard Data. (Photo: Courtesy International Rescue Committee)

May 13, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Richard Data is an environmental health coordinator with the International Rescue Committee’s emergency response team.
Richard Data is an environmental health coordinator with the International Rescue Committee’s emergency response team. Originally from Uganda, Data spent two months in Sierra Leone in late 2014 to assist in the construction and management of four isolation units for patients being tested for Ebola. Data reflects on his work in the Bo District during the height of the Ebola epidemic, which has killed more than 10,000 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea.

My blood went cold when I read the email. The IRC’s emergency director was writing to ask me if I would consider being deployed to Sierra Leone for the Ebola response. I thought about it a lot, and I talked to my wife, Jolly, who is my best friend. She started crying. She said, “I knew it would be in West Africa.”

We had had our first child in July 2014—a little boy named Jesse. I couldn’t imagine leaving him. But I knew that people needed help stopping Ebola.

Fighting for Their Lives

My first day in Sierra Leone, I met my new colleague, an American doctor named Solomon Kuah. That day, he was a stranger to me. Now, months later, I credit Sol for taking good care of me and ensuring I returned to Jolly and Jesse alive.

During the first week, I traveled to the government hospital in the city of Bo, a hot spot of the outbreak. We went through countless Ebola checkpoints where our temperatures were taken. Our driver told me many things about Ebola. As he spoke, I thought, “Is this person safe? Is this chair safe? Am I still safe?” This is how you always feel in an Ebola hot spot.

When we arrived, I saw a helpless patient sitting, isolated, in a fenced-in area of the hospital—perhaps counting his last hours on Earth.

There was a building covered with plastic sheeting. A nurse told me it was the morgue. “We have a dead body in there waiting for the burial team,” she said. A breeze blew a sheet aside, and I saw the corpse. I knew that we needed to act quickly to fix this place. Otherwise, many more people were going to die, including those, like me, who had come to help.

Within three days, we had set up a temporary Ebola isolation unit using an empty ward and tents. As we moved patients into the isolation unit, my eyes welled with tears behind my safety goggles. There were so many people—men, women, and children—fighting for their lives.

At the same time we were treating patients, we were also building another, more long-term isolation unit. We worked long and hard, constructing clean toilets and showers, making sure everything was safe and comfortable for patients. Most important, it was also safe for health care workers and volunteers, allowing us to observe and interact with patients from a distance, without going directly into the unit.

(Photo: Courtesy International Rescue Committee)

The hospital staff worked so tirelessly with us under these difficult conditions. They kept saying to us, “Thank you for coming to support us. But please be careful—we don’t want you to die here too.” We trained the staff on infection prevention and control measures in an effort to safely and effectively treat patients together.

Throughout the construction, I kept in mind that if I got infected, this was where I would be treated. That helped me keep things in perspective and motivated me to make sure that the unit was as humane as possible for everyone.

The Best and Worst Moments

The worst moments were the ones where I felt helpless.

During one of my rounds to check up on patients, I came across a young boy who was in extreme pain. He was struggling for his life, weak and crying with a broken voice. There was nothing I could do other than to clean his bed. His cries could be heard all through the night. The next day, early in the morning, I learned that he had passed on.

Even though I couldn’t save his life, I felt that by cleaning his bed, laying down fresh sheets, and tucking in his small body, I helped him to die in dignity. The whole time, I asked myself one question over and over: "Did I do everything that I could do?"

In another case, a young girl who was around three years old was admitted into our temporary isolation unit with most of her family. Within a day, both of her parents had died. Soon, her grandfather tested positive for Ebola and was transferred to the treatment center. I could see the misery written on the girl's face; she suddenly found herself among strangers. As I watched her, I thought of my little Jesse. My best day in the unit was when her Ebola test results came back negative and she went home with her aunt.

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I left Sierra Leone on Dec. 28 and spent my plane ride home thinking about our work with Ebola. I have a new perception of sickness and death now. I am grateful that I was able to save lives and also that I was able to help ease the coming of death for some.

I was home with Jolly and Jesse just in time to celebrate the start of 2015. Together, we prayed for a peaceful new year.

Good News From Liberia

I heard this week that Liberia was pronounced Ebola-free. This is great news for the people of Liberia, the government, and all the humanitarian workers who arrived in the country to save lives during the outbreak. Many died in their attempts to rescue people they didn’t even know. This news shows that their efforts and sacrifices were not in vain.

However, we must never grow complacent. Countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda have had reoccurrences of Ebola. We need to learn from all that happened, continue to create awareness, and strengthen local health systems to be better prepared to respond in future.

I pray that soon, Sierra Leone and all of the remaining affected countries will be declared Ebola-free as well.