The doctor who gave her life to stop Ebola in Nigeria

When Dr Amarachukwu Allison diagnosed Nigeria’s first Covid-19 patient in February, many Nigerians had flashbacks to 2014 — when a different virus showed up in the country.

As the Ebola virus infected and killed thousands in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, unsuspecting doctors at First Consultants Medical Center in Lagos examined Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian national who’d collapsed on arrival at the international airport in Lagos. Sawyer was weak and feverish. Doctors suspected malaria or hepatitis since Sawyer denied being exposed to any Ebola patients, but test results came back negative. Then diplomats started to press hospital staff to discharge Sawyer so he could attend a diplomatic conference in southern Nigeria.

But watching him deteriorate, Dr Ameyo Stella Adadevoh suspected there was more to Sawyer’s fever and refused to release him.

The calls grew louder and the pressure mounted as Liberian authorities got wind of the case and issued threats. Sawyer’s condition worsened. Dr Adadevoh, the lead physician and endocrinologist at the hospital, felt strongly she was dealing with the Ebola virus and was determined to keep Sawyer from leaving the hospital.

Dr Adadevoh sent out blood samples to be tested at a laboratory in Lagos and then retested at another in Dakar, Senegal. She combed the internet for information on the Ebola disease and distributed print-outs to doctors, nurses and ward maids. Staff at the hospital wore full protective gear and Sawyer was barricaded behind a wooden wall. 

Four days after his admission, on July 24, Sawyer was found unresponsive in his room. The same day, his Ebola test results came back positive. It was later revealed that Sawyer’s sister had died from Ebola complications, and that he had been under surveillance in Liberia. 

Adadevoh alerted Lagos authorities and teams frantically mobilised to trace and isolate all persons exposed to Sawyer. First Consultants Medical Center staff that had been exposed to him were swiftly put under clinical watch. But it was too late for some. Dr Adadevoh and several others linked to Sawyer contracted the disease. 

As Sawyer’s condition worsened, he had become unco-operative and even aggressive. Once, “he yanked off his drip, letting his blood flow almost like a tap,” recalled Dr Adaora Okoli, the physician who found Sawyer dead and who was also infected.

Dr Adadevoh died on August 19 at the age of 57. Several health workers at the hospital died too. One of them, Mrs Ukoh, was a ward maid. Another, Nurse Justina Ejelonu, attended to Sawyer on her first day on the job. She was pregnant.

“I could not bear it,” Dr Okoli wrote later, recounting her experience. Dr Okoli beat the virus but had to watch her colleagues, including Dr Adadevoh, succumb. “She was my consultant, my boss, my teacher and my mentor. She was the imperial lady of First Consultants, full of passion, energy and competence. I imagined she would wake up soon and see that she was surrounded by her First Consultants family, but sadly, it was not to be.” 

Some four months after Sawyer flew into Lagos, on October 20, the World Health Organisation declared Nigeria Ebola-free, largely due to Dr Adadevoh’s efforts. In Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, the virus raged on. Some 881 health workers were infected by 2015.

Now, Nigeria is back in the nightmare of 2014, once again battling an outbreak with doctors on the frontlines. Since Dr Allison discovered the first Covid-19 case, over 1 300 people have been infected, including 40 healthcare workers. Government health workers who are currently operating without medical insurance will likely deal with a spike in cases as President Muhammadu Buhari relaxes a four-week lockdown to keep the economy afloat.

Despite the lessons from 2014, Nigeria’s preparedness for outbreaks remains low, according to Niniola Williams, Managing Director of DRASA Health Trust. Formed and named in Dr Adadevoh’s honour, DRASA works to ensure proactiveness in outbreak response so that both patients and health workers can be protected.

“We understand the importance of being proactive in these areas but we still have a long way to go,” said Williams, who is also Dr Adadevoh’s niece. While government attention is on securing funds and building infrastructure for the coronavirus response, not much is being done to expand the capacity of Nigeria’s fewer than 50 000 doctors, a gap Williams said needs to be addressed.

“You can bring all the supplies but if you don’t have the trained professionals who can protect the rest of us and not get infected, then you know we have a problem,” she added.

This article was first published by The Continent. Access it here.

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