—die alone, as the disease is so contagious that loved ones need to keep a safe distance. Medical personnel and others visiting need to be fully covered in space-suit-like “personal protective equipment.”
“You want to be with them when they take their last breath because they’re in there alone—no one can be in there with them,” she said in a telephone interview while on a home visit in Michigan. “You’re limited as to how long you can stay in PPE. It was really hard walking out knowing they were going to die shortly and they were going to die alone.”
Her first patient in the unit remains the most memorable. A young father named George had recovered and was about to go home the day she arrived. “As he was walking out of the unit, his five-year-old son was being checked in,” she said. “William was the first patient I met. I put an IV in him and sat with him because he was crying, he was alone.”
George was anxious to get out, but when he learned that his son was being checked in, he stayed to take care of him. “A lot of our kids had no adult with them because they risked getting sick,” she said. But patients who survive Ebola develop an immunity to it.
“William seemed to be getting better, but one night, after he seemed to be doing well, later on in the night his dad came out yelling for help,” she recounted. “We went in, and William was seizing. We gave him medication to stop the seizures and cleaned him up, but he died about 15 minutes later. It was really unexpected, especially since it seemed like he was doing better. It was really hard to watch, especially after everything that George did.”
Though the hospital was not a religious one, most of the staff were very spiritual and consistently began their work day with communal prayer and song, Suter said.
“We had a lot of survivors come back and work with us because they understood the disease and how hard it was, and they were appreciative that they survived and they wanted to come in to help,” she said. Among those survivors was a pastor, “so anytime something happened or someone was getting ready to pass or a family member was having a really hard time we were able to have someone who could support them spiritually or go into the unit and sit down with someone.”
Individuals such as Suter and many medical personnel from the countries themselves and from around the world were crucial in containing and fighting back the outbreak. International aid agencies also contributed greatly. To mention only two, Catholic Relief Services helped to support St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital in Monrovia, which eventually closed because it lost 15 of its staffers to Ebola, and the Order of Malta sent $40,000 worth of protective gear and supplies to Monrovia.
“CRS was already working in the countries so it had relationships with local partners,” said John Service, Humanitarian Response Officer for the US bishops’ international relief agency. “We needed to send managers to work on several projects, including safe burial practices. We needed to find ways to help the local population compromise on long-held burial practices, which involved bathing of the body. That’s one of the times Ebola is most contagious.”
Service said the agency is now looking toward the post-Ebola, reconstruction phase, including helping families get back their livelihoods and finding a way to place orphans. “We’ll work with the Church on that and look to the model of the AIDS crisis of the past 15 years,” he said.
But those who know Ebola are not letting their guard down. “Now is the time to be careful. Just a few weeks ago, everyone was shouting victory, but, since then, there has been increase in cases in Guinea, including in the capital, Conakry,” said Dr. Patrick Guyon, who coordinates the Ebola efforts in West Africa for the Order of Malta and Malteser International. “We are encouraging increased surveillance, and are continuing our awareness campaigns to inform the local population about the risk of contagion, especially during funeral rites.”
According to Guyon, the key lesson to take away from this past year’s experience is that “the risk of an Ebola epidemic has been downplayed for a long time. The occurrence of cases in urban areas has completely altered the course of this epidemic: previous Ebola epidemics had only occurred in rural areas, where they could be quickly brought under control.”
Looking ahead, Guyon said, it’s important to address the weakened health structures in the countries that have gone through this ordeal, "restoring trust between people and health services, patients and caregivers, community actors and beneficiaries."
Said Guyon, "We need to improve the facilities of health centers, training staff, setting up an effective warning system for epidemic-prone diseases."
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.