Time’s 2014 ‘Person of the Year’ was named as the health workers who have been risking their lives and fighting Ebola on the frontline in a practical, no-nonsense and inspirational manner.
Time magazine’s editor Nancy Gibbs explained that in the West the disease has taken on nightmarish proportions and is largely perceived as “a Hollywood horror that makes eyes bleed and organs dissolve and doctors despair because they have no cure.”
Yet the Ebola which “haunted rural African villages like some mythic monster that every few years rose to demand a human sacrifice and then returned to its cave,” turned from an outbreak into an epidemic in 2014, “powered by the very progress that has paved roads and raised cities and lifted millions out of poverty.”
As Ebola struck doctors and nurses in unprecedented numbers and pregnant mothers lost their babies for want of hospital treatment, anyone willing to treat Ebola was also risking their life.
One such person was ambulance driver Foday Gallah. The man who lives and works in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, recently had his face splashed on the covers of Time Magazine. Yet in August of this year, it was doubtful if Foday would live to see another sunrise. In an insightful interview with the BBC, Foday explained his determination to battle a disease which nearly killed him.
Foday recalls how he went to pick up a little four year-old boy who was suffering with Ebola from his home.
“I knew the place well. I had already taken seven members of his family, who all eventually died. He was the last one. I hadn’t taken him before because he had showed no symptoms. But I had asked the neighbours to keep an eye on him and call me if he got sick. On the afternoon of the morning that I took his father and grandmother and brothers, I got the call.”
Driving straight to his home, Foday found the four-year-old lying in a pool of his own vomit. Without hesitation, Foday rushed to the little lad’s side.
“I picked him up and I was carrying him in my arms to the ambulance when he vomited again on to my chest. As it turned out, my protective suit was not completely sealed, but in that moment I was very focused on what I was doing, getting him to the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) treatment center as quickly as possible.”
The following Saturday, Foday went down with a fever and fearing the worst, he went to the nearest treatment center and his suspicions were confirmed – he had Ebola.
“I had known I would get it eventually. A lot of great doctors and nurses on the front line have died. They tried to be careful but Ebola still got them. I had carried so many patients in my ambulance and seen so many die in my arms. I was frightened, but I prayed, and God didn’t allow my fears to take over.”
In an insightful first person account of Ebola, Foday expresses his thoughts on living with the deadly disease.
“You don’t want to know what Ebola feels like. If you’re not psychologically strong and God is not on your side you will drop before you are taken for treatment because the pain is too great. You have no appetite and nothing stays in your system. You vomit a lot, you are dehydrated – then comes the diarrhea. It’s bad, terrible, devastating. It makes you want to give up on life.”
“All I wanted was to be looked at, cared for, shown love. And I was shown a lot of love and concern and care by the doctors and nurses who treated me.”
After a fortnight spent in the treatment center, Foday triumphed in his battle against Ebola, and now, he wants other people to realize that it is not necessarily a death sentence, and just how important it is not to stigmatize or ignore Ebola sufferers.
“I was there for two weeks. In the same tent as me in the treatment centre, a two-month-old baby died from the disease. And I lay listening to a lady who cried until she died. But the little boy who had infected me was there too, and he survived.
“I don’t know why I survived. Maybe it was because of my faith in God, or maybe just because I went for treatment promptly. And thank God my family did not stigmatise me. They were scared – my mother and my brother – but they never turned their backs on me and that was the same with my boss, Honourable Joseph. They all built me up and gave me courage.
“I want people to know that Ebola is not necessarily a death sentence and you can survive it.”
Returning to his job part-time at the beginning of December, Foday still wears protective clothes, even though he now has some immunity. He also admits that his own experiences with Ebola have made him make more of an effort when it comes to reassuring people in his ambulance.
“To keep their hopes alive. I tell them: ‘Look, you are not going to die, we are going to get you to the treatment centre. Remember to listen to the doctors there and take their advice and take your medication. You are going to be OK, you are going to go back to your family.'”
Since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak, ambulance crews in Monrovia are working 24 hours a day and their workload has tripled. Foday explains that their problems are aggravated by the lack of ambulances to deal with the disease.
“Recently I transported 11 people from the Omega area and they all died. Sometimes I feel so sad – when I’m looking at someone and I know that he or she is dying. Sometimes, I just want to give up.”
Despite being living proof that you can survive Ebola, Foday admits he stills gets a mixed reaction from a community that still doesn’t fully understand Ebola, and confess he is still shunned by many of his friends because of his job.
“Most of my friends now stay away from me because of my job. Some of them talk to me on the phone but they won’t see me in person.”
“We get a mixed reaction from people in the community. Some come to look at the strange protective suits that we wear, but we also encounter some pretty stiff resistance. Many of the patients I pick up are very afraid. Some of them just cry. They cry because of the pain, but also because their families have deserted them. I remember a 70-year-old lady. When we got to her house she was all alone in this four-bedroom apartment – the children gone, her husband gone, all of her family members gone and she was alone and shivering. I could see death in her eyes. My colleague and I picked her up and took her to the ambulance. I found out later that she survived – in fact, she’d never had Ebola at all. But that is the situation we are dealing with.”
Foday insists that, above all, people should not let Ebola make them shun their nearest and dearest.
“I tell people not to turn their backs on their relatives. When I was sick my family were shunned and stigmatised. I think this is the wrong way to fight this disease. This is why people are hiding and dying before they can be taken to treatment centres.”
Likening the battle against Ebola to a war against a cunning and deadly enemy, Foday insists the only option is to stay on high-alert and deal with whatever attacks it throws our way.
“It is an unknown enemy that we are fighting. Back in the civil war days, not so long ago, if you heard the enemy was coming from the north, you could pack up your bags and head east. You could see bullets flying at night, you could see men with guns moving through the streets. But Ebola is invisible, and there’s no way of knowing where the next attack is coming from. It just hits you and that’s it.”
Time Magazine also called Ebola a war and a warning and championed Foday and his fellow workers tireless acts of courage and mercy in faraway places, so the rest of the world can sleep at night.
“Because a group of men and women are willing to stand and fight. For buying the world time to boost its defenses, for risking, for persisting, for sacrificing and saving, the Ebola fighters are TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year.”