An Ebola nurse—and survivor—looks back on the outbreak

The World Health Organization today declared West Africa officially free of Ebola, marking an end to an outbreak that spanned nearly two years. Last week, award-winning photojournalist Kate Holt, on assignment with Jhpiego, sat down to talk with Stanley Amos Seyonkon, a 41-year-old nurse and Ebola survivor from Buchanan, Liberia. Seyonkon participated in an Ebola-related infection prevention and control (IPC) training as part of a health systems strengthening effort led by Liberia’s Ministry of Health, as well as monthly IPC mentoring and coaching sessions conducted by Jhpiego through the United States Agency for International Development. He provided care throughout the epidemic. (Their conversation has been slightly edited for length.)

41-year-old nurse Stanley Amos Seyonkon poses for a photograph in his hospital in Buchanan, Liberia, Friday, January 8, 2016. (Photo credit: Jhpiego/Kate Holt)

41-year-old nurse Stanley Amos Seyonkon poses for a photograph in his hospital in Buchanan, Liberia, Friday, January 8, 2016. (Photo credit: Jhpiego/Kate Holt)

What was it like being a nurse in Liberia over the last two years?

Ebola really affected our hospital. We lost several health workers. I was infected too. There were many patients who came here infected. I can’t be exact. We had four health workers get infected; two died.

I am a registered nurse—I became one in 2013 because I like caring for people and serving humanity. Before that, I owned my own pharmacy, but I wanted to help more people, so I left my business behind. I am married and have four children, including twin 13-year-old girls.

The impact [of my Ebola diagnosis] on my family was huge. Because of me, people were afraid of them, and they lost all hope of seeing me again. It was hard.

Marion Subah, Jhpiego’s Medical Education and Training Advisor in Liberia, holds a newborn baby in the newly built maternity wing of the public hospital in Buchanan, Liberia. (Photo credit: Jhpiego/Kate Holt)

Marion Subah, Jhpiego’s Medical Education and Training Advisor in Liberia, holds a newborn baby in the newly built maternity wing of the public hospital in Buchanan, Liberia. (Photo credit: Jhpiego/Kate Holt)

You had only been a nurse for a year when the outbreak started in early 2014. What made you stick with it?

I love to care for people, and Liberians were dying, so I had to take the risk. God was on my side to protect me.

Working in the clinic was very, very sad. But we needed to help people survive. That is why I took the risk. The hardest part of working was to see people dying and crying out for help. We were trained by the World Health Organization to manage Ebola patients. My training lasted two weeks. It was a very good training, and I learned a lot.

We volunteered to do the training. Many were leaving nursing at the time because they were scared of getting infected. I decided to take the risk.

Tell me more about your personal experience. How do you think you contracted Ebola, and what was the experience like?

There was a patient that came from Margibi County. It was a woman around 40 years old. She tested positive for Ebola, and when I went to care for her, she had vomited, and I tried to help her get out of the pool of vomit.

Two days later, I started to feel sick. I believe I got infected while taking the personal protective equipment off.

I was sick for two weeks. I woke up one day and realized I was in a treatment centre. It was difficult to think about—I knew the risks. I thought very soon that I would die and kept thinking of my family. But I survived and came back to work.

A woman holds her newborn in the public hospital in Buchanan, Liberia. (Photo credit: Jhpiego/Kate Holt)

A woman holds her newborn in the public hospital in Buchanan, Liberia. (Photo credit: Jhpiego/Kate Holt)

What is it like to be a survivor?

The hardest part about being a survivor is the stigmatisation—to not be accepted by the people and the community you came from and were trying to help.

I was able to talk with patients who had been sick. I was given psychosocial support—which gave me courage and helped me survive. My family and other health workers gave me support, too.

The stigma has subsided, thanks to work that the government is doing to educate others, but I still have long-term effects like joint pain—my whole body pains [me] sometimes. It is getting a bit less, but it is still there.

What lessons have you learned—what outcomes can you share that you think are important—since the outbreak?

Ebola has taught me about prevention—the safety rules as a health worker. Infection prevention and control is everything.

I understood it before, but I never realised the consequences like I do now. Sometimes the equipment we need to protect ourselves isn’t available—and this is a challenge. If there are not enough gloves and disinfectant, there will be problems.

I think more people died than maybe we thought. But my hope is for a better Liberia—that health workers will have the knowledge and skills to better prevent infection.

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