Recently Voice of America held a town hall meeting “Ebola: Knowledge Is Life” to provide first-hand experience on how the virus is affecting the people and the countries suffering from the Ebola outbreak.
The guests included Sierra Leone’s Ambassador to the U.S., H.E. Bockari K. Stevens, former World Bank Senior Public Health Specialist Dr. Malonga Miatudila, and two Ebola survivors, Doctor Rick Sacra and journalist Ashoka Mukpo.
Dr. Rick Sacra is a family doctor for a Christian missionary organization called SIM. Early in 2014, he caught Ebola while treating patients in West Africa. He was declared virus-free after treatment in the United States.
Dr. Sacra spoke with VOA Learning English’s Anna Matteo about his personal experience in West Africa with Ebola and hope for a cure.
Q: Are other illnesses being overlooked because of Ebola?
Dr. Rick Sacra: “That was the whole problem when I arrived in Liberia in August and it still goes on now … is that most of the health facilities were closed because doctors and nurses developed Ebola and were either sick or dying and the whole hospital would close for decontamination. And sometimes workers were reluctant to come back to work.”
Dr. Sacra says that the situation is still very serious for those needing health care. He talks first about one population who are at risk -- pregnant women who need to give birth surgically, a C-section. These women cannot deliver because facilities around them are closed.
Dr. Rick Sacra: “We have a terrible situation now in both Liberia and Sierra Leone where pregnant women who can’t deliver and need a C-section many of them have nowhere to go because the health care facilities around them are closed. Remember this is not just about Ebola. There is a ripple effect into the health system as a whole.”
The doctor has worked in West Africa since 1995. His main focus was improving Liberia’s response to HIV and AIDS.
He says people seeking treatment for another illness such as AIDS, may catch Ebola. However, the symptoms of their original illness may hide the classic signs of Ebola. These people may not have the benefit of early treatment.
Dr. Rick Sacra: “Some people are very sick with another problem … like these pregnant women or someone who comes in and has AIDS or some other condition. And they get Ebola on top of their other condition. They may not show all the signs and symptoms.”
Dr. Sacra explains that it is not simply those treating Ebola patients who are at risk. He says everyone providing health care to those in areas affected by Ebola are at risk. He reminds us that he was not treating Ebola patients when he caught the virus.
Q: Are all health care workers in West Africa at risk?
Dr. Rick Sacra: “I think anyone doing direct patient care in West Africa, whether it’s in an Ebola treatment center or just in a general health facility .. because I was not treating Ebola patients I was in a general health facility … everyone is at risk. And people need to know that there is a risk when they’re working.”
Health workers wearing Ebola protective gear remove the body of a man they suspect died from the Ebola virus, at a USAID, American aid Ebola treatment center on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, Nov. 28, 2014.
Dr. Sacra says that people can suffer from Ebola in very different ways. He adds that not everyone develops bleeding commonly thought to come in the late-stages of Ebola. He did not.
Q: What did having Ebola feel like?
Dr. Rick Sacra: “Some people have a lot of pain. They wake in the middle of the night crying because their whole body is killing them. I never experienced that. Some people develop bleeding. Some people develop very severe pain in the head or in the muscles. I didn’t really experience that. Some people have bleeding. And I never had bleeding.”
The first sign of his illness was a low-grade fever. This fever lasted three days. Then on the fourth day his stomach problems began. This is when Ebloa patients lose much of their body fluids.
Dr. Rick Sacra: “For the first three days that I was sick all I had was a fever. Chills and fever. And that was really it … maybe a little headache. Then by the third and fourth day I started having stomach problems … vomiting … diarrhea. After that you start to get weak because you start to get dehydrated.”
According to Dr. Sacra, early treatment is important to survive Ebola. Two of the main symptoms of Ebola are vomiting and diarrhea. Both cause severe dehydration. Dr. Sacra explains that once a person is dehydrated their body cannot fight the virus.
Dr. Rick Sacra: “This is why it is so important to get treatment early because if you wait, if people wait while they’re having those symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea they end up getting dehydrated and don’t have a chance to live through it (Ebola) they just lose all their fluids.”
Q: Are you going back to West Africa?
Dr. Rick Sacra: “I do hope to go back. I don’t have my tickets yet. But I do hope to be back early next year … for another month and continue to work there.”
Dr. Sacra is not worried about catching Ebola. Doctors have told him that is now protected -- or immune -- from the virus.
In fact, his blood could hold the answer for a cure or vaccine. A treatment, called “convalescence therapy,” uses the blood of Ebola survivors to help cure those suffering from the virus. This convalescence therapy is showing great promise. But it needs more testing.
Q: As a survivor, can your blood help cure Ebola?
Dr. Rick Sacra: “They tell me I’m immune now which is good. If I’m able to donate to help others I’d be happy to do that. It is exciting. They are now beginning clinical trials more serious, scientific trials on a larger scale of both medications and this “convalescence plasma” to really prove whether they work or not. And that’s going to be very helpful. Because once we have the proof, the scientific proof, we can move forward with more confidence.”
Q: Did you think you were going to die from Ebola?
Dr. Rick Sacra: “You know, I never had that sense. And I’d say that’s for two reasons. One, I never got critically ill even though my lab tests were pretty bad, I never became critically ill. But also I just had a sense of peace about what I was doing. I knew I was where God wanted me to be doing what I was doing in Liberia. And I felt that he was there with me. And that even if I didn’t make it, I knew I was in the right place and where I was supposed to be.”
Anna Matteo interviewed Dr. Rick Sacra and wrote this report for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor. Adam Brock was the camera operator.