Adiatu Pujeh, a nurse at the King Harman Road Hospital in Sierra Leone. Photo courtesy of WHO/S. Gborie
Before the Ebola virus arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, hospital nurse Adiatu Pujeh and her colleagues at the King Harman Hospital thought malaria was the most challenging disease they faced. But Ebola, which arrived in their midst last September, infecting Pujeh and killing many of her colleagues, changed all that.
"We had been treating all sorts of common cases here, including the number one killer disease – malaria – before the Ebola outbreak," says Pujeh. But in September, a patient being treated as a 'normal' case of fever and diarrhoea, turned out to be anything but normal. In fact the patient had escaped from an Ebola treatment center and brought the virus to the hospital.
Three of Pujeh’s colleagues became ill, and each tested positive for Ebola. All three died. "I was very edgy when the first case happened, then the second and another. We were all very close and I also helped treat the patient. So I became extra vigilant for signs and symptoms of Ebola and was extremely careful at home."
Soon enough, Pujeh developed the symptoms she feared – sudden fever, headache, vomiting and diarrhea. She went straight to the Hastings Ebola treatment centre for testing and care but there she became convinced that "I was at the point of no return."
"When I saw people in the same condition, in the same ward as me, including healthcare workers, dying every day, I knew I would be the next to die. It was terrifying."
Despite her fear, Pujeh slowly began to recover and, after nearly two months in the treatment center, tested negative for the virus and was discharged, taking part in a joyful televised ceremony. "At that point I felt like I had been released from death row in a jail," she says.
Returning home, Pujeh realized that even though she had recovered from the infection she now faced another aspect of Ebola: stigmatization.
Although warmly received by her family, her neighbors, friends and co-workers, others were less welcoming. Many, even her 9-year-old son, were afraid to go near her. "There were whispers and fingers were being pointed at me on several occasions. A woman approached me in town once and asked whether I was the person in the news that was discharged. It was tough to bear."
Having survived the worst, Pujeh decided she wanted to help others beat the disease as well. She underwent training on Ebola care and was assigned to work at the Hastings Ebola Treatment Centre – the very same place where she had been treated. "Going back to work in that facility was an opportunity for me to give back," says Adiatu. "My story reassured patients that they could survive. Many did survive but many also died. And whenever there was a death, I would cry."
As the number of people with Ebola have now fallen in Sierra Leone, Pujeh has been able to go back to her pre-Ebola work, providing nursing care at the King Harman Road Government Hospital.
However, she no longer works 'pre-Ebola style.' Now she and her colleagues are far more careful in protecting themselves and their patients. They now apply infection prevention and control practices, learned from training and guidance provided by WHO and other partners such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Source: World Health Organization (WHO)