Dispatch from Liberia: Waking up in Ebola Land

Morning breaks muggy and warm with broken clouds signaling that the rainy season is slowly giving way to its dry season doppelgänger. Roosters crow incessantly below my second-story apartment bedroom window, ridiculing anyone who wants a few minutes of extra sleep on a Saturday morning. Life in Monrovia, Liberia is waking up to a new day in Ebola Land.

Dr. Vega in Bong Co, Liberia

HHI Chief Medical Officer Dr. Rene Vega visiting the IMC Ebola Treatment Unit in Bong County, Liberia.

 

It’s an important day for us as Dr. Rene Vega, our chief medical officer, has returned from a week of Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) training with one of our NGO partners, the International Medical Corps, at their Bong county site.  Dr. Vega will be taking a week break from the ETU and working with us in our Monrovia office. He will then return to Bong to gain even more experience in preparation of the opening of our own ETU in a few short weeks in Nimba county, eight hours of rough road from here.

Suiting up in PPE in Bong

International Medical Corps workers help a colleague suit up in PPE, personal protective equipment, inside the ETU in Bong County, Liberia.

 

We are looking forward to getting Rene’s input on the design of the ETU we will be operating. Nothing beats experience when it comes to improving the way the unit will be designed and built. Little details like how patients are brought into the ETU or even the width of a patient shower stall can be helpful in preventing unnecessary exposures and risks. Doctors with many years of training in human anatomy are suddenly being asked to become experts in Ebola treatment unit layouts.

Dr. Vega w IMC program officer

HHI Chief Medical Officer Dr. Rene Vega (left), meets with IMC program director at ETU in Bong County, Liberia.

 

Reports of the number of patients coming to existing ETU’s in Liberia are down suggesting to some that the epidemic may be waning. That is not what the experts believe, nor even the man-on-the-street in Monrovia.  Instead, it is widely thought that people have remained in their homes when showing signs of Ebola rather than heading for an ETU. They naturally fear isolation from their loved ones and the seemingly inhuman nature of being treated by people in body suits where only the medical worker’s eyes are visible, and that through goggles. Fear is palpable.

Staying at home has terrible implications for this disease since home caregivers, almost always members of the patients’ family, usually become the next victims. And so the disease continues, as yet unconfined.  More ETU’s will be built in both the cities and the countryside as this impoverished country seeks to eradicate a virus that is causing panic and fear to spread around the world.

-Jim

 

A White House Invitation

Due to our involvement in the fight against Ebola in West Africa, HHI was invited to attend an event at the White House with the President of the United States on Wednesday, October 29th.

After meeting with advisors and healthcare workers involved in the Ebola fight, President Barack Obama delivered remarks in the East Room of the White House praising those Americans who are risking their lives by going to the Ebola affected areas in West Africa to stop the spread of the virus.

“We need to call them what they are, which is American heroes,” Obama said. “They deserve our gratitude and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Watch the President’s remarks:

 

Following the event, HHI joined with a handful of other NGOs to discuss the coordinated Ebola operations on the ground in Liberia, meeting with senior administration officials including HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Ebola Response Coordinator Ron Klain, and Gayle Smith, Senior Director National Security Council.

Learn more about our Operation Ebola.

 

 

From a Conversation on Ebola in Liberia: “They Are Not Anxious to Die…”

The other night I had a good conversation with a couple of my Heart to Heart International colleagues here in Liberia.  The question I asked them was, “Why are you accepting the risk of contracting a deadly disease by volunteering to come and work in Liberia on Operation Ebola?”

While there was not one simple answer, I thought you might be interested in their responses.

nurses carry body

Nurses in full protective gear carry an Ebola victim on the way to burial. Image courtesy: NBCNews

 

First of all, these are people who are drawn to work that involves medical crisis, wherever it occurs in the world. They are experienced. They’ve worked in many other countries… most of which are developing countries with limited resources and infrastructure. They knew what it would be like to work here, and they did not come with false expectations either about the challenging environment or the personal risks.

I also have to say – they are amazing people. They have a heart for the needs of others and are drawn to help when people are suffering. Their willingness to do whatever it takes to be a part of the solution never ceases to amaze me.

But this is no “normal” crisis. This is an epidemic involving a deadly and virtually untreatable virus that kills indiscriminately and in a horrific manner.  Every effort to protect yourself from contracting Ebola may not be enough.  Doesn’t that make this crisis different?

Their answers were clear. No, it only makes it more important to be here and stop this thing while we still can. Both of our team members told me they were prepared to die if that is what it takes. Don’t get me wrong. They are not anxious to die! They simply acknowledged that before coming, they assessed the personal risk of dying and decided that if it cost their life, it was a price they were willing to pay.

I can’t even comment on that level of commitment other than to compare it to what I have heard quoted by many of our troops when they go to war. And that comparison is apt since this is a combat zone of sorts. It is a region that is fighting for its entire existence and needs all the medical soldiers it can assemble.  Unfortunately there are not enough soldiers here (yet) to turn the tide, but I hope there soon will be.

-Jim

FedEx Delivers to Front Lines of Ebola Epidemic

Our long-standing relationship with FedEx is a rather special one.  For many years now, the company has helped Heart to Heart International deliver critically needed supplies around the world.
And again FedEx has come through – delivering more of our emergency Ebola supplies to front line health workers in West Africa.

FedEx Ebola Shipment1

As part of Operation Ebola – not only are we in the process of opening an Ebola Treatment Unit in Liberia to combat the spread of the virus – we continue to ship supplies to our partners in Liberia who are also on the front lines of the hot zone.

This was featured recently in a story on the FedEx blog, showcasing how their team members provide a product and supply lifeline:

“FedEx leveraged its global network of logistics expertise to move the supplies by truck and by plane from the United States to Europe as part of a special donated shipment. From there, the shipment was moved to its final destination in Liberia.

FedEx is proud to be a part of this effort to help prevent the spread of the Ebola virus and to ensure those in need receive the proper medical care.  FedEx has long-standing relationships with relief organizations around the world. Through these relationships, FedEx is able to assist in situations like this to ship large amounts of supplies to those impacted the most.”

Read about another Heart to Heart shipment FedEx transported a couple of weeks ago to our partners and friends the International Medical Corps in Liberia.

FedEx Ebola Shipment2It’s awesome to see our supplies loaded onto a FedEx cargo plane bound for those in need!

 

Tamba Hali Donates, Joins Fight Against Ebola

Recently, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali joined us at a press conference to show support for Heart to Heart International’s efforts in Liberia to combat the spread of Ebola.
Now, Hali, who grew up in Liberia, has made a sizable donation to help in the fight.

Tamba ETU 14

HHI CEO Jim Mitchum shows Tamba Hali some medical supplies bound for Liberia

 

In a cover story on Sports Illustrated’s The MMQB, Peter King writes about Tamba Hali, his childhood in Liberia and why he made such a large donation to help.

Peter King writes: Hali is typically reserved, and he’s not comfortable being a spokesman for anything. This is different, though. He understands that there are few famous Liberians in America, so he knows it’s up to him to speak up and try to get people to donate money and time to help contain Ebola, a viral disease for which there is no proven treatment.

“We can’t really wait on this,” Hali said on Wednesday before the Chiefs hit the field to practice for Sunday’s game at San Diego. “I’d be the first one to tell you that every time I do charity work, I like to do it on the hush-hush and help people quietly. But there are some matters—like this—that are way bigger than me. All I can do is lend my help in ways I know I can.

“This is not a type of disease you can contract and then there are vaccines and it goes away. People are dying within weeks and within the first month of contact. So we have to act now.”

Read Peter King’s full story on The MMQB about Hali helping in Heart to Heart International’s fight against Ebola.

HHI’s Ebola Treatment Unit Under Construction in Liberia

The first photos are coming in from the work site in Kakata, Liberia.  The photos are somewhat small thanks to a slow and intermittent internet connection.  But, you can see that work is progressing on our 70-bed Ebola Treatment Unit!  We expect to have it up and running in November.

Workers are busy constructing the visitor area of the new HHI Ebola Treatment Unit in Kakata, Liberia.

 

Digging Latrine Pits

Digging the latrine pits at the new Ebola Treatment Unit in Kakata, Liberia.

 

Triage ETU

The triage area of the Ebola Treatment Unit, where patients will be first checked in.

 

 

HHI to Open Ebola Treatment Unit in Liberia

Heart to Heart International CEO Jim Mitchum announced today (October 7, 2014) that HHI would open an Ebola Treatment Unit in Liberia to help combat the Ebola epidemic.

Mitchum_Cameras

Mitchum: “This is no small task, nor was it an easy decision. Running an ETU in Liberia will be the most complex and challenging humanitarian effort we have ever undertaken.” 

Mitchum made the announcement at a press conference held at the new HHI headquarters in Lenexa, KS in front of a bank of cameras and news reporters. “After careful deliberation, we have decided to go to Liberia where we will open and operate a 70-bed Ebola Treatment Unit,” Mitchum said.  The ETU is already under construction in Kakata, a city about 50 miles from the capital of Monrovia.  HHI will join two other NGOs who are already operating ETUs in Liberia.

Read more of HHI’s plan to open an Ebola Treatment Unit

Joining Mitchum for the announcement was Dr. Lee Norman, Chief Medical Officer of the University of Kansas Hospital who supported the plan laid out by Mitchum, and offered “we at KU Hospital have systems in place to assure you that should Heart to Heart volunteers and staff, and their worried families, need our care, we are here to help you.”

Dr. Lee Norman

 

Also on hand – Tamba Hali, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs professional football team. Hali spent much of his childhood in war torn Liberia and offered support for HHI’s plan to help the people of his home country.  “The country’s been in chaos and Heart to Heart’s coming in,” Hali said. “I don’t think there’s another organization that does what they do. We just need more effort. These are good people. We’re all human beings. We’re all good people. We all want to do the right thing.”

Tamba at presser

 

Emergency Ebola Supplies Arrive in Liberia

Heart to Heart International’s shipment of emergency medical relief supplies to help fight the spread of Ebola has arrived in Liberia and is already being put to use by our partners the International Medical Corps.

IMC Liberia Supplies 1

International Medical Corps’ Ebola Treatment Unit in Bong County, Liberia receives donations from Heart to Heart International. Photo © International Medical Corps/Stuart J. Sia

 

The shipment originated in our Global Distribution Center in Kansas City – 18 pallets built by HHI staff and volunteers and filled with a variety of supplies like syringes, needles, sharps containers, gloves, masks, medical scrub brushes and more.  These are key items needed on the ground in the fight against the spread of Ebola and for medical care needs.
All of the items were donated by HHI’s corporate partners BD, Abbott, Johnson & Johnson and by one anonymous corporate donor.

IMC Supplies Liberia 2

Unloading a truck’s worth of supplies shipped by Heart to Heart International. Photo © International Medical Corps/Stuart J. Sia

 

IMC Supplies Liberia 3

Boxes filled with thousands of syringes provided by BD and shipped by Heart to Heart International are unloaded in Bong County, Liberia. Photo © International Medical Corps/Stuart J. Sia

 

The supplies were shipped via our global transportation partner FedEx – first by truck, then by plane, from the US to Europe and then down to Monrovia, Liberia in West Africa.

IMC Liberia Supplies 4

A member of the International Medical Corps surveys the delivery of critical medical supplies. Photo © International Medical Corps/Stuart J. Sia

 

IMC Liberia Supplies 5

Supplies are stacked in storage near IMC’s Ebola Treatment Unit. Photo © International Medical Corps/Stuart J. Sia

 

Once the supplies arrived in Liberia the International Medical Corps loaded them onto another truck and drove them several hours into the interior of Liberia to its storage facility at Cuttington University in Bong County, near its Ebola Treatment Unit.

IMC Liberia Supplies 6

HHI & the IMC working together to provide care and to meet the medical needs of the people of Liberia. Photo © International Medical Corps/Stuart J. Sia

 

So very glad that HHI can provide critical supplies to those on the front lines of the Ebola fight – and it’s great to see the efforts of so many, including donors & volunteers, making a difference where it’s needed most!

 

At the Front End of the World’s Response to Ebola

Dr. Gary Morsch, founder of Heart to Heart International, is a member of HHI’s Advance Team in West Africa.  The team has gone to Liberia, the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak, to determine how HHI can respond further to stop this terrible virus.
What follows is an excerpt from Dr. Morsch’s journal, written as the team traveled in Liberia, meeting with other aid organizations and visiting Ebola treatment centers.

Gary in Liberia

Members of the HHI Advance Team, Dr. Gary Morsch (dark blue shirt) and Julie Hefner (with notebook), visit the ELWA Hospital and Ebola Treatment Center in Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia, Liberia.

 

Gary Morsch, MD:  Once again, Heart to Heart International is responding to a global disaster.  But this crisis is unlike any other in modern times.  It’s Ebola, one of the world’s most dreaded diseases. Ebola means nearly certain death – a terrible, painful death, with profuse bleeding both internally and externally. That’s why it’s called Hemorrhagic Fever.  Though there have been sporadic outbreaks since the disease was first identified in 1976, this is by far, the largest outbreak of this virus in history.  Ebola, with mortality rates that can approach 90% and with no effective treatment or cure, is perhaps the most feared of all infectious diseases.

This unprecedented epidemic is located in a handful of West African countries, with Liberia taking the brunt of it.  To date, nearly 7,000 have been infected, and more than 3,000 have died.  Experts are panicking because the disease is growing exponentially, literally day by day, with fears that it could pass a point in which it would be unmanageable. The only hope is to get control of the Ebola epidemic quickly, and turn the tide before it gets out of control.

Why is HHI involved? It’s what we do. When there’s a significant crisis anywhere in the world, we ask ourselves if there is an effective and appropriate role that we can play. Our strengths are built on two pillars.

First, we have developed one of the most effective logistics systems in the world.  Because of our reputation for delivering high quality products to the most remote places on earth, pharmaceutical and medical companies donate about $100 million dollars of pharmaceuticals and supplies to HHI each year.  These are shipped in a timely manner primarily through our transportation partner, FedEx. In this current crisis, HHI has already shipped in 18 pallets of medical supplies that are being used to treat Ebola patients by our partners the International Medical Corps. More is about to leave our warehouse.

Our second strength is our network of volunteers, both medical and non-medical. This is part of why we’ve traveled to Liberia. In addition to the medicines and supplies we’re delivering, we are asking:  is there an opportunity to effectively and safely use medical volunteers in this current crisis?  We shall soon find out!

 


 

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A Clinic That Ebola Closed

The Life Care Health Clinic is just one clinic in the Liberian countryside, but its story is shared by so many across this country.  It’s a story of frustration, incapacity and loss of knowing what could possibly be done next.

Life Care Health Clinic

The clinic is located in the interestingly named Soul Clinic community of Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia, Liberia.  Our team – myself, Gary, Sue, Dan – along with James, our guide, came to learn more about how health providers are faring in this time of Ebola, and to provide some supplies we had brought with us. We had an opportunity to sit and talk with the small clinic staff and listened mostly to Mr. Tia, the clinic administrator, as he talked about his clinic, the community and what they’ve had to deal with.

This tiny clinic has a two-bed male ward, two-bed female ward, a delivery room, a pharmacy, and it serves a community of about 4,000 people.  When Ebola came into their community they were unprepared for the onslaught of patients, and woefully under-supplied and under-staffed.

They had no way to protect themselves from the Ebola virus, nor did they have a way to determine who actually has Ebola or who has something else like a bad case of malaria or cholera.  At first they tried to just turn away those that had symptoms, but it quickly became clear that it was hard to tell who was infected with Ebola and who wasn’t.  So the difficult decision was made that they simply must close the clinic.

Gary & Sue at Soul Clinic

Sue & Gary with Life Care Health Clinic staff in Liberia

 

Mr. Tia told us that out of 50 deaths in the past few months, maybe 20 to 30 are from Ebola and that perhaps the rest could have been prevented with regular medical care, but there is no way for people to get treated now.  Beyond Ebola, his biggest concern is people dying of malaria, which is so much more common than Ebola.

We listened, sitting on the porch of the clinic as the African rains fell, and thanked Mr. Tia and his staff for sharing their stories and concerns.  Before we departed, we left one of our Ready Relief Boxes full of medical supplies, thermometers, disposable stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs.

We wanted to do more.  As we drove away we hoped that soon we will.