As the chaos and tragedy of the Ebola outbreak engulfed parts of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in 2014, a more insidious ill took root: distrust of all who had come into contact with the disease.
The suspicion was certainly not without reason. Whole countries looked on as the disease erased entire family trees. Doctors and aid workers dressed in protective gear akin to spacesuits to fend off the highly contagious disease. Those brave people who fought against the spread of the disease were collectively given Time magazine’s 2014 Person of the Year award. Among the medical workers featured on Time’s cover was a Liberian nurse, Salome Karwah, who lost her parents to Ebola, beat the sickness herself and went on to provide care to scores of others.
Last week, Karwah died as a result of complications from childbirth, and the lingering suspicions of Liberians toward Ebola survivors was partly to blame. A writer for Time magazine who met Karwah in 2014 reported on her recent death:
“On Feb. 17 she delivered a healthy boy, Solomon, by Caesarean section. She was discharged from hospital three days later. Within hours of coming home, Karwah lapsed into convulsions. Her husband and her sister rushed her back to the hospital, but no one would touch her. Her foaming mouth and violent seizures panicked the staff. ‘They said she was an Ebola survivor,’ says her sister by telephone. ‘They didn’t want contact with her fluids. They all gave her distance. No one would give her an injection.’ Karwah died the next day.”
Her fourth child “will grow up never remembering their mother’s face,” said Karwah’s sister, Josephine Manley.
More than 11,000 people died in the Ebola outbreak, although 17,000 who contracted the virus survived. The outbreak was officially declared over by the World Health Organization less than a year ago.
Karwah’s father had run a clinic that had to close when he died. Once Karwah recovered, she reopened her father’s clinic. Although doctors are hesitant to say that those who survive Ebola can never contract the disease again, very few do. As such, Karwah saw that she could provide care to those suffering with greater ease.
“I can do things that other people can’t,” she said then, according to the report in Time. “If an Ebola patient is in his house, and his immediate relative cannot go to him, I can go to him. I can take [care of] him.”
Even without the stigma, maternal health care in Liberia is abysmal. About 1 in 28 mothers die in the weeks surrounding childbirth, according to the international public health organization Partners in Health. The Liberian government spends about $50 per person a year on health care. Many hospitals lack basic equipment, medicine and even electricity.
Karwah’s story was that of someone who by sheer bravery and will rose to overcome those systemic odds. It is what helped her beat the virus in the first place, as she wrote in 2014:
“When you’re sick with Ebola, you always have to encourage yourself: take your medication; drink enough fluids — whether it’s oral rehydration solution or water or juices — but don’t keep your system empty. Even if they bring you food and you don’t have any appetite to eat, just eat the soup.”
And it is what brought her back to the treatment center after she recovered.
“Now, I am back at the treatment center, helping people who are suffering from the virus to recover. I am working as a mental health counselor. I find pleasure in helping people, and that is what brought me here. My efforts here may help other people to survive.”