In all my medical training there's only been one thing that really scared me personally: Ebola. As you know, Ebola is running rampant across West Africa, but hasn't found it's way to Chad. However, sitting around in Yacoub's living room last Saturday with a group of robed Muslim men, you'd have thought it was right around the corner. Everyone was panicked. They'd heard that there were two cases in N'djamena. It had been announced that everyone should drink a half a glass of hot salt water before leaving home to protect themselves. Everyone wanted to hear more. So I told them what I knew.
What I didn't tell them was that the only reason I knew anything is that since the night before I'd been doing serious research on it because I was probably going to be going into the heart of the epidemic in the Liberian capital of Monrovia.
Apparently, most of the hospitals in Monrovia have closed down because health care workers refuse to come to work and possibly expose themselves to Ebola. At first, it was even recommended that the surgeon at the Cooper Adventist Hospital be evacuated. However, Dr. Gillian refused to leave. As the only hospital in town doing surgery, she was being overrun, especially by complicated obstetrics. How could she turn her back and leave?
She soon found herself working 18-hour days and being swamped with cases. So, Friday night, in talking with my wife Sarah, she told me she'd just met with Dick Hart, Adventist Health International's president, and he was wondering if I'd be willing to go to Liberia to help for a few weeks to a month. My first reaction was abject fear. I'd been following the story of the American doctor in Monrovia who almost died of Ebola and was well aware of it's up to 90% mortality rate with no supposed treatment available except supportive care.
But I also don't believe in giving in to fear. I needed to face this fear, especially since it was for such a good cause.
So Elisée and I packed up the ambulance and started the drive across Tchad on Sunday. Sunday night I spent sleeping on the bench in the back of the ambulance parked outside the Catholic mission in Mongo. We continued on to N'Djamena where I boarded a flight to Ethiopia on Tuesday. There were a few glitches in the plan. First, I had no Liberian visa and second I had a layover in Addis Abeba overnight.
The second was resolved when I got an email newsletter from Adam and Michelle Yates saying they'd just arrived in Addis to begin their work in Ethiopia. They graciously agreed to pick me up from the airport and let me spend the night. I exited the airport into the cold air of Addis and there were no cars outside.at least not immediately, from way across some bushes and down a hill I saw a tall American jumping up and down and yelling "James!" Boy, was I glad to see Adam!
I spent a pleasant evening with the Yates. The next morning I finally got the invitation letter from Adventist Health International and was able to print it out at Adam and Michelle's. I had my boarding pass already for Accra, Ghana so I boarded no problem. Then I began to get really panicked on the flight. I knew that Accra would be a challenge. I didn't have my ticket, I didn't know if they'd make me get a Ghana visa or not nor if they'd let me on the plane since I didn't have a Liberian visa. I was told they were working on getting one in Monrovia to meet me at the airport, but nothing was confirmed. Plus, why would they believe me?
Coming off the plane in Accra, I walked directly into the Customs line. There was no signs for transit. Then I heard someone crying out "Transit! Transit!" I saw a uniformed woman holding a list. I wasn't on the list but I told her I was on Kenyan Airlines for Monrovia. I was registered by hand in a large book and given a laminated "tourist visa" card which the woman held for me and told me to follow. There was an Indian man also going to Monrovia so we followed our guide around Immigration and Customs where the Indian picked up his bag. Then we walked outside and up a ramp to the entrance to the airport. I went to the Kenyan Airlines counter. At the front of the line, the man asks for my passport. He can't find my name on the list. I show him the email on my computer. He asks about my Liberian visa. I say I don't have one. He asks for some kind of paper. I pull out the Invitation Letter. He reads it, smiles, and says "Very good!" and waves me on.
At the counter, they can't find my name. Finally, they find out that my ticket's been voided. It's midnight in the US, so no way to call the travel agent. I offer to buy a new ticket. It comes to $484. No credit cards allowed. I have $400 with me. Then I remember I have some Euros in my wallet. I go to the exchange booth and get $90 for my 70 euros. Just enough to buy the ticket. I finally am able to contact Dick Hart by telephone (fortunately, my Chadian SIM card works in Ghana) and he then calls Gillian in Liberia. He then calls me back to confirm that they have a visa ready for me and will meet me at the airport!
So I'm off to Liberia!