“I would like some sardines, please.” The words are spoken softly by the little patient. She opens her eyes slowly, still visibly weakened by the disease raging inside her. She is 6 years old, lives in Liberia, and is critically ill with Ebola.
(Published: June 2015)
The girl looks carefully at the woman standing beside her bed: Sonja Stihler is clad from head to foot in a protective suit. Stihler’s gaze rests on the little girl and, as she comes closer, her suit rustles. She bends protectively over her patient and begins to measure vital signs, and then to administer medications.
Stihler spent six weeks with the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders in Foya, a town in Liberia’s north. She comes from Ludwigshafen, Germany, where she works as a medical assistant for NephroCare, a subsidiary of Fresenius Medical Care, caring for patients with chronic kidney disease who depend on life-sustaining dialysis treatment. To enable her to help the people of Liberia in the fight against Ebola, NephroCare granted Stihler a leave of absence for the duration of her stay in the West African nation. Stihler had worked for Doctors Without Borders once before, in 2011. On that occasion she spent six months in Iraq, helping to set up a dialysis clinic.
“Helping people in crisis situations is important, and also very rewarding.”
“It was all worth it to experience moments like that,” Sonja Stihler said warmly, as she reflected on the little girl in Liberia. Initially, the girl’s condition had continually worsened – so much so that the doctors had not expected her to survive. The morning she woke up hungry and asked for sardines marked the beginning of an incredible turnaround. Her condition had improved noticeably. At last, she was responding to treatment. A few days later the girl was discharged. She was healed.
More than 6,000 kilometers (3,800 miles) separate Ludwigshafen and Foya. Sonja Stihler’s route into the Ebola zone first took her to Belgium, where a team from Doctors Without Borders conducted intensive training – including extensive safety instruction – to prepare the volunteers. Two days later, the journey continued, to Liberia.
“The daily routine was very demanding,” Stihler admitted. “Exposure to this highly infectious disease required a great deal of self-control from all of us.” Ebola viruses are transmitted from person to person by body fluids. Those infected first suffer flu-like symptoms such as high fever, a cough, painful limbs, diarrhea and vomiting. Later symptoms include skin rashes, shortness of breath, and bleeding – both internally and externally. The disease is usually fatal.
Almost 10,000 people, more than 4,000 in Liberia alone, have died from Ebola since the outbreak at the onset of 2014, according to the World Health Organization. Many infected people, however, have been saved thanks to the commitment of the numerous volunteers. And, fortunately, the number of new infections in West Africa has begun to decline. In Liberia, the last Ebola case was reported in March. This is a big success, one in which Sonja Stihler played a part.
As she was about to return to Germany, she got a big shock. On the way to check in at the airport in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city, fever was detected during a routine temperature check: Ebola was suspected, and Doctors Without Borders immediately placed her in quarantine. After weeks of caring for others, now she was experiencing what it was like to be a patient. “The uncertainty before the blood tests arrived was really terrible. Nonetheless, I don’t regret my time in Liberia,” recounted Sonja Stihler. She was very lucky: The first blood test was negative, and the second one 48 hours later confirmed the fever was not caused by Ebola. After a few days’ delay, she was able to fly home. As a safety precaution, her temperature was taken twice daily for three weeks following her return; it remained within the normal range.
“I was very happy that my family, my friends and also my colleagues at work so readily accepted me back in Germany. Luckily there were no irrational fears just because I had been in an Ebola zone,” Stihler said. “I received so much support and positive feedback from the people around me, it was very moving.”
Asked whether she could envision another trip to a crisis region, Stihler had a clear answer. “Of course,” she said. “Helping people in crisis situations is important, and also very rewarding.”