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This doctor survived Ebola. This is her message on coronavirus

by Martha Holeyman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 24 April 2020 15:00 GMT

Adaora Okoli, Internal Medicine Resident Physician at Tulane University.

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"Infectious diseases such as Ebola and COVID-19 don't respect time. They don't respect governments. They don't respect people. They just spread."

By Martha Holeyman

LONDON, April 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The first time Nigerian doctor Adaora Okoli went on the wards at her New Orleans hospital to treat COVID-19 patients she felt scared - shaken by memories of her own brush with death.

Six years ago, while working at a hospital in her homeland, Okoli caught a much deadlier disease - Ebola, which kills about half of those who become infected, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Okoli, 33, survived, but the disease killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa between 2013 and 2016, and she vowed in its aftermath to do what she could to advance treatments for Ebola patients and help fellow survivors.

As the global death toll from coronavirus passes 190,000, Okoli said she hoped governments would be better prepared for future disease outbreaks, and heed the advice of public health experts.

This is her story:

"I remember the first case of Ebola we had in Nigeria, a man who came from Liberia for a conference in Calabar. He was found to be ill at the airport, so he was wheeled into the emergency room on July 20, 2014.

We didn't really have personal protective equipment (PPE). And we had to go in to check him at least every six hours, just to make sure he was okay.

In medical school in Ghana, I was told Ebola is a disease that you might never ever come across. It was really only in the Central Africa region, in rural areas and remote villages.

When we got the information that (the patient) was positive, it was like all hell broke loose. Within a couple of hours, he passed away.

The hospital was closed and everybody who had been in the hospital during those five days had to be under quarantine and to self-monitor.

I was already starting to feel unwell. I thought it was just stress.

A couple of days after, I called the helpline and let them know I had a fever. They said "Oh, it's fine, we'll check you just to rule out Ebola."

I was told the result was within 24 hours. I called back and they said they didn't find the sample or something happened to the sample, and they needed to take a second sample.

They said they had to take me to the isolation center. I guess they didn't really want to tell me I was positive.

I didn't know that I was going into isolation until I got there. A doctor who works with the WHO and had experience dealing with outbreaks of Ebola told me I'd tested positive.

I was so anxious. I was also numb. I called my mum and told her "Don't go into my room. Just make sure the doors are locked." The government sent people to decontaminate the entire house.

My clothes were burned. Everything I took to the isolation center also had to be discarded. I was there for 14 days battling for my life. Having fevers, diarrhoea, uncontrollable vomiting. I was 28.

I couldn't really eat anything. I had bad sores in my mouth. I had so much pain in my eyes when I looked into the lights. I had so many achy joints that made it so difficult to sleep.

But I had my iPad with me. There have been outbreaks of Ebola in the past and I wanted to know what survivors felt. But I really couldn't find much.

That was a wake-up call for me that people survived this and don't really talk about it because of fear of stigmatisation, because people believe that maybe once you've had Ebola, you're somehow tainted.

I knew I was feeling better when I noticed I wanted to eat bananas. But the person who had the bananas couldn't eat them. She was a pregnant woman expecting twins. Unfortunately, she passed away.

After Ebola, I was full of questions. I wanted to know the epidemiology of Ebola, and why is it that infectious diseases affect some people more than others.

So I was part of a consortium trying to get survivors to donate blood, to give to people in isolation centers.

I was also involved with survivor advocacy: that Ebola survivors are not to be feared, that they're actually safer than people who've never had the disease because they survived it.

As part of the consortium I had to go for a conference in New Orleans. I met Tulane faculty members who were doing research in Sierra Leone, and I got interested. So I chose to do my Master's in Public Health at Tulane University.

Right now, I'm an internal medicine resident physician.

I plan to do an infectious disease fellowship after my residency, with the ultimate goal of advocating for health equity in low-income countries.

When I first heard about the novel coronavirus, I thought maybe this is another cousin of the flu. But what got me worried was when it started to really spread in an exponential way.

What it has in common with Ebola is that it's a novel disease. So you're more cautious, you're more scared, because you don't know what there is to know about this disease.

So it's a lot of learning on the job, what this disease can do and what it can't do. That, for me, is the part that scares me the most.

The first time I came on the wards during the outbreak of COVID-19 infection, I felt very scared, because it brought back memories.

But when I eased into patient care, I wasn't that scared anymore. I also realized having had Ebola makes me more careful.

I have a four-year-old daughter at home, it gives me more of a will to survive. I'm divorced, so it's just me and her.

I would say the health system wasn't really prepared for the COVID-19 outbreak.

Outbreaks of infectious diseases such as Ebola and COVID-19 don't respect time. They don't respect governments. They don't respect people. They just spread.

Viruses don't wait for governments to act. You can have all the resources, the money, the people, but if you don't act fast, the virus will outpace you.

We're all trying to catch up with this virus, because when we had that window of opportunity to implement flight restrictions, to do social distancing, to equip our hospitals, prepare our healthcare workers, produce more masks and PPEs, we didn't do it until we became overwhelmed.

We didn't start social distancing on time. Social distancing is the way to go for COVID-19, but it has to be coupled with other measures.

If you're doing social distancing, but you're not providing more tests or rapid tests, then it's not really going to work because people can only be at home for so long.

Listen early to public health experts when they sound the alarm. Remember that whatever happens in any part of the world can happen to you."

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(Reporting By Martha Holeyman, Writing by Thin Lei Win @thinink, Editing by Helen Popper (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)