By Dr. Chandrakant Ruparelia, an infection prevention and control expert with Jhpiego, an international health nonprofit and Johns Hopkins affiliate.
This week is World Health Workers Week! Celebrate by reading Dr. Ruparelia’s inspiring story.
For the past four months, I’ve traveled all over Africa, building local health workers’ skills in infection prevention and control, to help ensure that those on the frontlines of care in the next epidemic, the next disaster, the next major health crisis, are safe and effective.
Four months of training sessions with veteran nurses, midwives and doctors, and it wasn’t until a casual conversation with Dorbor Dennis, outside of the hot, muggy confines of our personal protective equipment (PPE), that I truly understood what it’s like to be a health worker on the frontlines of an outbreak. A physician assistant from Margibi Country, Liberia, Dorbor shared this:
My ordeal began on a Monday in August before sunrise, when an ailing health care worker called me. “Dee, if you do not come now to my aid, you will never see me. I will be dead and gone.”
Infection prevention and control skills are so vital for this very scenario: health workers must be safe when treating patients. A health system is only as strong as its frontline health workers.
I immediately jumped out of bed and rushed to the emergency room. He was vomiting and weak. I started some basic nursing care. Around 8:00 a.m., four other hospital staff were brought in with similar symptoms. By 6:00 p.m. I was caring for twelve health workers—first with two other nurses, but then, as they went home too frightened to work, alone.
I had no formal training in wearing and removing PPE, no buddy to assist me, no one to disinfect me.
Though I also feared death, I said to myself, “This is the time that my ailing colleagues need my help the most. I just need to carefully carry out every procedure.”
When the health workers Dorbor was caring for were moved to a special Ebola treatment unit in Monrovia, he had to quarantine himself at home for 21 days.
Every second, minute, hour and day that passed, I felt I was starting to present symptoms. The trauma only increased when friends would call to give me the obituaries of the colleagues I had been caring for.
Despite the trauma, Dorbor completed the 21 days, and has remained Ebola-free throughout the epidemic. His wish: that IPC practices were institutionalized throughout the health care system of Mama Liberia and her neighbors.
Today, Dorbor is part of a team of health workers who are sharing critical infection prevention skills with colleagues across Liberia to thwart the next outbreak. Working together with other colleagues at Jhpiego, we have trained dozens and dozens of health workers in the past four months. But in that one chance conversation with Dorbor, I understood clearly what it takes for a frontline health worker to don a crinkly, white protective suit and face mask — a selfless dedication to fellow West Africans and the will to heal.
TAKE ACTION and ask World Leaders to make bold commitments to help end the Ebola epidemic now.