Mohamed Sesay, a laboratory technician at Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone. Photo courtesy of WHO/S. Gborie
Mohamed Sesay was once part of an eight-person team of laboratory technicians trained to test for Ebola virus. But as the outbreak exploded and more and more samples arrived, his team was overwhelmed. One by one his colleagues sickened and died. He too eventually fell ill but survived, and is the only member of his team left to tell the tale.
"I just can’t remember how I got infected with Ebola," says Sesay, the only survivor in a team of eight lab technicians working at the Lassa fever laboratory at Kenema Government Hospital, Sierra Leone.
Sesay had been working in the hospital’s general laboratory when the outbreak started. He volunteered to learn how to test for Ebola in the hospital’s Lassa fever laboratory because the explosion of cases in the district meant there was an urgent need for more trained technicians able to test for Ebola.
The Lassa fever laboratory at the Kenema government hospital was the only facility in the country equipped to do tests to detect the Ebola virus. "Together with colleagues from the general hospital, I volunteered to be trained to work in the Lassa fever lab," says Sesay. "Step by step, we were taught how to detect the Ebola virus in blood and swab samples."
More and more samples began arriving every day, from every part of the country, overwhelming the small team that had to work longer and longer days to keep up with the demand. "We had a lot to do and were working long hours," Sesay recalls. Many people, including some of his colleagues, were terrified of the Ebola virus. Three of his peers, with whom he had volunteered, resigned from the laboratory due to fear of getting infected with Ebola.
For Sesay this felt like he had been abandoned in the middle of a desperate fight. "It felt like they retreated from the battlefield while the war was still on."
When Sesay developed a fever, he knew it was likely to be Ebola. He had seen so many colleagues sicken and die, and hoped he was wrong. He first tested his blood for malaria, using a rapid diagnostic test kit. But the results came back negative.
"Knowing that I had Ebola symptoms, I started to isolate myself, and allowed no one to come into my room," he says. However, Sesay soon realized he needed treatment. Persuading staff at the Kenema Hospital that he had Ebola and that they needed to protect themselves was difficult. "I asked my colleagues to be fully dressed in personal protective equipment before taking my blood sample. They didn’t take me seriously at first, but I insisted," says Mohamed who stayed at the hospital while waiting for the results.
Several hours later he got the news he was dreading. He had indeed tested positive for the Ebola virus disease. "A lot went through my mind at the time, but all leading nowhere."
Sesay does not recall much more from this time as his condition deteriorated rapidly. However, he does recall the crucial difference made by having spiritual support. At the peak of the outbreak, various religious groups offered prayers and psychosocial support services to patients from safe distances within the Ebola treatment centers.
"The regular prayers and counselling offered by the pastors and imams played a great part in my survival. They gave me hope and made me believe I could survive. I am very grateful to them," he says.
The Lassa fever laboratory in Kenema is now one of many laboratories where suspected Ebola samples can be tested. Sesay has returned to work as a blood collector, collecting blood samples from people with suspected infections such as Lassa fever, Ebola and other diseases.
Source: World Health Organization (WHO)