Did Sierra Leone’s hero doctor have to die?

Joshua Hammer writes: Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, the head of the Kenema Government Hospital’s Ebola ward, didn’t want his head nurse moved into the main isolation unit. Called Ward A, it consisted of eight small rooms lining a dingy corridor of exposed wiring, peeling paint, and grimy cement floors. It was narrow, stiflingly hot, and crowded with as many as 30 patients. Nurses squeezed between beds, injecting antibiotics, emptying buckets of diarrhea, hosing down vomit with chlorine. Some of the sick were delirious; others catatonic, with a stony-eyed stare that usually signaled that death was imminent. All of them were hooked up to intravenous fluid bags; in a state of disorientation, some would rip the needles out of their arms, spraying their blood in all directions.

So Khan had bent the rules and moved the Ebola-stricken nurse to a private room in the observation wing, which was normally set aside for those awaiting their diagnostic test results. It was more comfortable and dignified — befitting the nurse’s status, Khan thought, as the most beloved figure at the hospital. Khan and Mbalu Fonnie had been each other’s family for much of the past decade. He called her “mom.” She thought of him as her son, and she took maternal pride in his accomplishments. A round-faced man who had been born poor in a village near Freetown, Khan had become a hero in Kenema, a backwater town of 130,000. As the head of the Lassa fever ward, he had treated more cases of hemorrhagic fever than anyone else in the world, helping thousands of patients recover their health. He attended conferences from New Orleans to Nigeria, published studies in major medical journals, and was soon headed to Harvard on sabbatical to work at the cutting edge of tropical disease research — mapping the virus genome. But now Khan was facing the greatest challenge of his life. [Continue reading…]

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