For a month, emergency physician Colin Bucks, MD, found himself in the remote, dense jungle of northeast Liberia in the heat of the battle against Ebola. A clinical assistant professor of surgery at Stanford, Bucks was a volunteer with the International Medical Corps at a new tent-like unit hastily built to accept the continuing stream of Ebola patients in the hard-hit West African country.
The facility, a series of low, tin-roofed, concrete buildings, were primitive in design but had very effective methods for controlling infection, including spigots everywhere that dispensed virus-killing doses of chlorine and protective gear for covering the body head to toe. Aside from providing basic care, such as fluid and electrolyte replacement, Bucks said much of his time was spent comforting patients, who were physically isolated from family members because of the threat of infection.
"In this setting (in West Africa), there is an additional barrier because you have one physical degree of separation, as your head, your hands, your face are completely covered. But that doesn't preclude the same level of connection to the patient and the same sense of responsibility and care," said Bucks, who left Liberia Oct. 22 and is now isolated at his home in Redwood City, Calif. "There may be a higher percentage of sad cases because Ebola has a high-case fatality rate, so there is an added burden there. But there is a similarity to working a tough case in rural Liberia to working a tough case in a U.S. critical care unit."
He said the unit received patients from a nearby hospital, as well as those brought in by makeshift ambulances that might travel as much as eight hours to retrieve ailing victims. "We would get these reports everyday from the ambulance - we have four cases and three flat tires. The roads would be blocked with trees. They would have to drive through dense jungles. The ambulance stories were by far the most riveting."
Bucks said the caregivers at the unit, which included 125 Liberians, were able to save just under half the patients who came in, with each survivor serving as an important ambassador to the community.
"The public health message was blanketing the country, but there was still a lot of fear and misunderstanding," he said. "People are scared to come to the hospital. People are scared to undergo treatment. It helped every time we had patients discharged as cured."
Bucks, who is now following recommendations and Stanford requirements to remain in isolation for 21 days, says there is a desperate need for other U.S. volunteers like himself to help contain the spread of the virus. "There needs to be a rational policy that facilitates health-care workers going to and from the U.S. Policy should help this - not impede this. But you need an organized response on West Africa. Otherwise we will be fighting a much bigger battle in the U.S. and around the globe."
Previously: How to keep safe while operating on Ebola patients, Experience from the trenches in the first Ebola outbreak, Ebola: A look at what happened and what can be done and Dr. Paul Farmer: We should be saving Ebola patients
Photos courtesy of Colin Bucks