A surgeon who divided his time between his family in Maryland and hospitals in his native Sierra Leone arrived in Nebraska critically ill Saturday to be treated for Ebola.
Martin Salia, 44, whose wife and two children live in New Carrollton in Prince George’s County, was working as a general surgeon in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown when he tested positive for the virus Nov. 10. Salia came down with Ebola symptoms around Nov. 4, but his first test was negative, according to the hospital where Salia works in Sierra Leone and an Obama administration official. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly about the case.
Salia arrived in Omaha on a medical transport plane around 3:45 p.m. Eastern time Saturday and was taken to Nebraska Medical Center, one of four U.S. facilities with a special biocontainment unit.
Hospital spokesman Taylor Wilson described Salia as “critically ill.” He is the 10th Ebola victim to be treated in the United States.
The Nebraska Medical Center did not name Salia, because of privacy laws, but said the transport team found the patient to be “extremely ill,” and medical workers who cared for him in Sierra Leone said he was “possibly sicker than the first patients successfully treated in the United States.”
Friends said Salia mostly lived in Freetown but visited his wife, Isatu Salia, and their two children, ages 12 and 20, in New Carrollton several times a year. He is a Sierra Leone citizen and permanent U.S. resident, while his wife is a U.S. citizen, according to the Obama administration official.
Salia has worked at Kissy United Methodist Hospital since 2012 and has been its chief medical officer since February, said John K. Yambasu, bishop of the United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone and chair of the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola.
Kissy Hospital is not an Ebola treatment center, and the hospital does not know where or how Salia contracted the virus, Yambasu said.
But surgeons in West Africa are at risk by operating on patients whose more immediate needs can overshadow Ebola symptoms, said doctors who have worked there.
“I can think of a dozen ways you could get it,” said Bruce Steffes, a general surgeon in North Carolina and executive director of the Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons.
While Liberia has made some progress in controlling the Ebola outbreak, infections are up in Sierra Leone and in parts of Guinea. Sierra Leone added 218 cases in two days, according to a report released Friday by the World Health Organization.
In an April interview posted on YouTube by the United Methodist Church, Salia said he felt a religious calling to work in Sierra Leone.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be rosy, but why did I decide to choose this job? I firmly believe God wanted me to do it,” Salia said, a stethoscope hanging around his neck. “I took this job not because I want to, but I firmly believe that it was a calling and that God wanted me to.”
He added: “That’s why I strongly believe that God that has brought me here will fix whatever comes to my doorway.”
Yambasu wrote in an e-mail that Salia also worked at the Connaught Hospital, the country’s largest government hospital, and the Davidson Nicol Hospital in Freetown. He also lectured at the University of Sierra Leone’s medical school, Yambasu wrote.
Salia last reported to work at Kissy Hospital on Nov. 4, Yambasu wrote. He said he believes Salia might have realized he had symptoms, isolated himself and had gone to the Hastings Ebola treatment center near Freetown for testing. That first test was negative, Yambasu said. A second test at Connaught Hospital on Nov. 10 was positive.
Steffes, of the Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons, said Salia graduated from the academy’s surgical residency program in Cameroon in 2008. The academy pays for African nationals’ medical residency in exchange for four years of service in African missionary hospitals. Steffes said Salia completed his four-year commitment in 2012 but remained in Sierra Leone rather than join his family permanently in the United States.
Steffes said Salia is one of five or six surgeons in all of Sierra Leone.
“He could have gone into private service and made a lucrative living,” Steffes said. “But the fact that he stayed committed to missionary hospitals tells you everything you need to know about who he is and his faith and what’s important to him.”
Richard Toupin, an Indiana family physician who met Salia in Sierra Leone in 2003, said Salia “was trained to use his work and skills as a surgeon as an extension of God’s love for people.”
Kissy Hospital was closed Nov. 11 after Salia’s positive test, and the hospital staff is being quarantined for 21 days, according to the United Methodist News Service.
Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.