A growing number of doctors, nurses and public health specialists across the U.S. are putting their lives on hold and heading to Ebola-ravaged regions of West Africa. Today, and in the months to come, we bring you the story of one man who is on the ground in Liberia.
John Welch, 33, is a nurse anesthetist at Boston Children’s Hospital, and works with Partners in Health (PIH) in Haiti. At least that was his life before he opened an email from the organization in late September. It was a call for volunteers and support as PIH moved into Liberia and Sierra Leone to try and stop Ebola’s spread. Welch told a supervisor he’d be happy to help if needed.
That decision, says Welch, “was about being on the right side of history. I think I would have trouble looking back, knowing that I had an opportunity, and had not stepped up.”
Calming worried friends and family members was not so easy.
“How does your mother feel?” asks Lindsay Waller, an old friend and fellow anesthetist, who helps Welch prepare to discuss the decision with his family.
She’s upset and worried, Welch says, but “I am who I am because she’s my mother. [My parents] taught me these feelings of altruism and taking care of the people around you and helping out.”
The next day, on a quick trip from Boston to Columbus, Ohio, Welch makes a pitch he knows will resonate with his mother, aunt and sister: 70 percent of deaths from Ebola are women, the caregivers.
He asks his family to sit with him and watch a “Frontline” episode on Ebola. Fear and pain in the faces of patients with Ebola made the point for Welch.
“At first, I wanted to just say, ‘No, don’t go, it’s too dangerous,’ ” says Heidi Christman, Welch’s sister. But then, in the video, Christman says she saw “the brothers and sisters, friends and family that have been lost because of Ebola. And it made me realize that it’s not about me or my fears. It’s about helping these people. They deserve people like my brother.”
Her brother flew to Alabama for a CDC Ebola treatment training and in mid-October, three weeks after Welch said, “I’m in,” he was on his way to Liberia.
It wasn’t an easy journey. There are very few flights in and out of Liberia these days. Welch had several cancellations, spent an extra day in Casablanca, and his luggage was lost in transit.
When he finally lands in Liberia, Welch must take his temperature and wash his hands in chlorine, something he’ll get used to doing at least a dozen times a day. On the drive into Monrovia, a building, all lit up, stands out from a distance. Welch realizes it’s the large Doctors Without Borders Ebola Treatment Unit that he’s read about and seen in pictures. Suddenly, his assignments feels real.
After a few hours sleep, Welch leaves Monrovia and heads inland to a clinic in rural Bong County run by the International Medical Core. Welch is here to learn what it will take for PIH to set up a similar Ebola Treatment Unit in another rural county with few roads, power lines and little running water.