A Cuban nurse mimics his partner in taking off his PPE after exiting the red zone. Healthcare staff are often exhausted at the end of their shifts, therefore, each person coming out is coached every time as they remove their PPE making sure they do not skip any steps and avoid fatal errors. Photo Courtesy of WHO/W. Romeril
Dr. Felix Sarria Baez was one of hundreds of Cuban doctors sent as a Foreign Medical Team to support the Ebola response in West Africa in October 2014. While working there, he contracted Ebola himself. He survived and returned to Sierra Leone to further help Ebola patients. This is his story.
"It’s been like coming back from a war, alive. My companeros shouted, smiled, cried and hugged me," Baez reflects on his return to Sierra Leone after recovering from Ebola.
Baez told his story on a hot, dusty hotel patio in Port Loko, a two-hour drive from the capital Freetown. He was wearing a new WHO polo shirt, a gift when he came back to Sierra Leone. All his other clothes were destroyed in November 2014 when he was diagnosed with Ebola. "It’s good to come back. I needed to come back," he explains. "Ebola is a challenge that I must fight to the finish here, to keep it from spreading to the rest of the world."
"I don't know how I got infected. There was no violation of protocols," he explains, describing sweat "like a river" from the layers of heat-retaining safety garments that cause body surface temperatures to rise to 40 degrees centigrade (104 Fahrenheit). This is significantly higher than normal body temperature of 37° C (98.6 F) and can only be withstood for 40 to 60 minutes. WHO provided rigorous safety training and mentoring to the Cuban Medical Brigade and other foreign medical teams before starting work in the Ebola treatment centers.
Baez remembers clearly the day he first felt ill. "It started Sunday morning with a fever of 38 and then 39.5° C (100.4 to 103.1 F). I lost my appetite all day, but I didn’t feel weak or have any pain," he recounted.
"On Monday, I went to Kerry Town Treatment Unit, where there is a special ward for healthcare workers. I developed a cough that lasted throughout my illness. My white blood cell count and platelets fell fast. At 8 p.m. the test result came back positive for Ebola." White blood cells fight infection and platelets help blood clot. Without them, the body risks succumbing more quickly to Ebola.
Dr. Felix Sarria Baez returned to Sierra Leone after recovering from Ebola. Photo courtesy of WHO/Stephane Saporito
"When my doctors told me the blood result, I thought about it and then decided, let’s see what the results are tomorrow. I felt calm, quiet. I will save my life I said to myself. If you doubt and feel depressed, the illness will invade your body. It’s important to be optimistic."
Before leaving Kerry Town, Baez's doctors started a central IV line as a precaution. Although he could still eat and drink at this stage, his condition was likely to worsen, at which point his veins might collapse making an IV attempt more challenging. Giving fluids by IV as needed to maintain life-saving hydration in Ebola patients is a mainstay of WHO guidelines since it often reduces severe complications and death.
WHO and the government of Cuba agreed to transfer Baez to Geneva, Switzerland. He remembered the impressive layout of the Phoenix medevac plane. "I was isolated in a private area where I could get up or rest. Four times during flight I had diarrhea," a common and concerning sign of Ebola since it can lead to rapid dehydration. At midnight, the Phoenix landed in Geneva and Baez was transferred to Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève (HUG), where his condition deteriorated.
"I lost consciousness and slept deeply. For two days I was delirious with a 40° C (104 F) fever and cerebral encephalitis,” Baez says of the worst phase of the disease. The fever caused swelling in his brain, although his caregivers later said he would awaken, answer questions, and drift off again. He developed a rash over his entire body, beginning on his chest, belly and back, as is often seen on Ebola patients.
On Thursday, his fever broke and he woke up feeling better. He drank juice and ate rice, meat, fruit, yogurt and chocolate. "Chocolate is good for Ebola," he said with a grin. By Friday, Baez’s hands ached so badly he was unable to hold a pen. "I spoke to my family every day from that time on," he recalls. "My wife would tell me to keep up my spirits and not worry about her and the boys. She never doubted I would recover."
He was released from HUG once his blood was clear of Ebola virus.
When Baez landed in Cuba, a handful of people greeted him at the airport including his family and a few government officials. No one in Cuba avoided him or treated him as a social pariah for having fought off Ebola, as many survivors have experienced in West Africa or other countries.
In Cuba, his wife nursed him back to health with a steady diet of meat and chicken. During his two weeks in hospital, he moved only between the bed and a chair. Baez’s arm and leg muscles had grown so weak he could barely stand.
"That first day back in Cuba, my wife brought me my 2-year-old son. I held him all day long until the evening, all the while rocking him in my arms," he cradled his arms across his chest and swayed back and forth. "After that, my legs felt strong. I didn’t need physical therapy. My son was my therapy. I was better from that day on."
A month and an added 15 pounds later, Baez boarded a plane for Sierra Leone. On his way, he stopped by HUG in Switzerland to donate his plasma to help future Ebola patients. "I met my doctors and nurses and their families for dinner. That was a very beautiful day. They saved my life," Baez says. "Every doctor and nurse should talk and have a good relationship with their patients. They did with me."
"I am so grateful to the Director-General and everyone at WHO, to the British army docs, and to the hospital staff in Geneva for each playing a part in saving my life."
Baez departed Sierra Leone on March 22, 2015 in the first wave of Cuban medical workers to head home.