By Linda Mobula, MD, MPH
On September 16, 2014, as I sat listening to Dr. Kent Brantly passionately testify at a joint Senate hearing on Ebola, I was overcome by a myriad of emotions. As he eloquently described to the Senate the need to scale-up a response to the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in West Africa, I experienced flashbacks of painful memories. This was the first time I had seen him since his evacuation from Monrovia to Emory University Hospital.
I was overwhelmed by similar emotions as I watched the premiere of FACING DARKNESS, which describes the early response of Samaritan’s Purse to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. The 2013-2016 West Africa Ebola outbreak caused more than 11,000 deaths, greater than the number of casualties in all prior historical Ebola outbreaks. Samaritan’s Purse worked alongside Medecins Sans Frontieres, managing the only functional Ebola Treatment Unit in Monrovia.
Prior to the World Health Organization’s declaration of a public health emergency of international concern, I worked with a small group of brave individuals striving to ensure that patients suffering from this deadly illness received proper medical care. Simultaneously, frightened community members bearing machetes approached the Ebola Treatment Unit, driven by fear, rumors, and uncertainty.
I was not a stranger to humanitarian emergencies, as I had previously worked with Samaritan’s Purse in post-earthquake Haiti as well as in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. In 2010, 10 months after the earthquake, Haiti experienced an unprecedented cholera outbreak. I intermittently responded to this outbreak in Haiti with Samaritan’s Purse from October 2010 to the fall of 2011. In June 2011, one of the Cholera Treatment Centers, which Samaritan’s Purse operated in a large slum called Cite Soleil, received a total of 200 patients from a neighboring area, going from 40 to 240 patients overnight. I was one of two doctors working during that morning shift and had to mobilize staff to quickly triage patients and stabilize the ones who were severely ill. After this experience, I thought I could handle anything. I was wrong.
In Liberia, we were receiving more and more patients from counties outside of Monsterrado, but did not have sufficient bed capacity to accommodate these patients. It is more challenging to respond to a surge of Ebola patients, as it requires more staff and physical infrastructure that adheres to careful infection control measures. In contrast to cholera, all staff must don Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to care for patients, which limits the amount of time one can spend with a patient. I was becoming more overwhelmed and fearful as the outbreak got out of control. I feared for the wellbeing of our personnel and worried about our ability to care for patients with limited staff. I personally experienced heartbreak and uncertainty as more patients died each day. The death of a young boy, whose mother came to visit him every day, would haunt me for months. I was, however, reminded that God remained in control of the situation, even as everything around us fell apart.
FACING DARKNESS is a distinct reminder of the faithfulness of God during troubling times. “His strength is made perfect in weakness,” says Apostle Paul. I encourage you to see this film, as it will inspire you to fulfill God’s call to serve the least of these in challenging places.