As clouds dumped late summer rain in Liberia, William E. Pewee was on his way to work as registrar at the Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA) Hospital, a 54-year-old mission hospital in the capital city of Monrovia. Although he claims not to be a good singer, before his day started Pewee sang a song of worship to God.
He’s thankful to be alive. Five years ago, he was lying sick on a hospital bed at ELWA, bleeding from his eyes, ears, and nose. He’d contracted Ebola, a dangerous virus that swept the country in 2014 and killed thousands of people. Pewee picked up the contagious virus while praying with an ELWA patient who turned out to be positive.
Dr. Rick Sacra also caught the virus from an ELWA patient. The longtime missionary doctor, an American who had worked at the hospital since the 1990s when staffers were treating gunshot wounds from the country’s civil war, became a patient himself during the Ebola outbreak.
Today, the room where Sacra was treated for Ebola is now a cramped hospital study library. Inside, when I visited, Sacra was working with ELWA medical residents on a PowerPoint presentation regarding a case of palpable purpura. The residents discussed vasculitis, adjusted font sizes, and boiled hot water for tea to stay awake.
In the hospital’s new dental clinic, clinic manager Loranso Gbogar was taking phone calls. During the Ebola outbreak, Gbogar came down with typhoid, and ELWA was the only hospital taking patients like him. Much of the devastation of Ebola was that other diseases and conditions went untreated as hospitals and clinics closed.
Though Pewee, Sacra, and Gbogar recovered, many others did not. The virus killed 11,000 in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, the largest Ebola outbreak in history. Liberia bore the heaviest burden of fatalities.
Amid this crisis, ELWA Hospital, run by Serving in Mission (SIM), opened the capital city’s first Ebola treatment unit and became one of the primary treatment centers for the disease. Without this small mission hospital, many people—not just Ebola sufferers but other patients needing emergency cesarean sections or treatment for deadly fevers—would not be here today. Not only did ELWA’s medical workers weather the epidemic, they went on to contribute to the development of life-saving treatments. The hospital is now helping rebuild local institutions and training new health workers at a time when Ebola is on the move again in Africa—a yearlong outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has so far killed about 2,000.
It’s easy to forget how much panic Americans felt about the spread of Ebola in 2014, panic that could have derailed clinical care and breakthrough research. Workers at New York’s LaGuardia Airport went on strike over fears about possible exposure to Ebola from travelers. Airport officials quarantined nurse Kaci Hickox, returning from treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, even though she had tested negative for the virus.
During that time, Republican politicians in the United States called for a travel ban on West Africa. At one point, the governors of New York and New Jersey ordered all health workers returning from the Ebola zone to be quarantined for three weeks upon arrival in the United States, hampering health workers from going to serve in the crisis. Donald Trump, not a candidate at the time, took to social media to condemn President Barack Obama for sending “innocent soldiers” to West Africa and to call for a ban on flights from West Africa to the United States.
Sacra and other doctors argued a travel ban would hurt clinical care and research in West Africa, ultimately hurting other countries as the virus spread with few medical workers to treat or contain it. The United States at one point even blocked Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) experts and other government personnel from working in Ebola-affected areas.
But later, CDC experts started a lab on ELWA’s campus. A partnership between U.S. federal health experts and the Liberian Ministry of Health has since resulted in the largest-ever studies on Ebola survivors and helped with the development of new vaccines.
Yet while U.S. politicians debated travel bans, ELWA hospital workers were risking their lives to treat the sick.
One was deputy nursing director Marthalyne Freeman. In the hospital’s emergency room this August, Freeman rushed a dose of adrenaline to doctors who were performing CPR on a teenager. The boy had arrived at the hospital comatose, suffering from cerebral malaria.