A former Haines and Sitka doctor spent two months in Monrovia, Liberia treating Ebola-infected healthcare workers. Dr. Russ Bowman is a doctor with the US Public Health Service. He worked at the SEARHC clinic in Haines from 2007-2012 and in Sitka after that.
He returned from Liberia to his home in Albuquerque in time to spend the holidays with his family. He cleared the 21-day incubation period for Ebola this month.
Bowman worked at the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Monrovia Medical Unit that began operating in November to treat those who treat Ebola. Mainly Liberian doctors, nurses, and also ambulance drivers and burial team members are eligible for care in the field hospital. It’s basically a series of air-conditioned tents with a hallway connecting them.
Liberia is one of three countries in West Africa hardest-hit by the Ebola outbreak. Over the past few months, the disease has gotten more under control in Liberia.
Bowman had done relief work there before, but it didn’t involve such a dangerous disease.
Despite the risks, he says his friends and family were supportive of his decision to serve in Monrovia.
“The reaction of most folks was, ‘Wow, very proud of you, we need people to go do that.'”
Bowman went through a week of CDC training before leaving. He and the other Public Health Service workers drilled every day putting on and taking off all the personal protective equipment – or PPE – they would need to wear to shield themselves from the disease.
“It was hard, it was very hard to adjust to that,” Bowman said. “But you had to for your own safety. This is an illness that can kill you.”
Bowman says there’s a difficult barrier that’s created between a patient and provider when one is so covered in protective equipment that they’re unrecognizable.
“It’s a very different feeling to be in there trying to provide care because you’ve got double gloves on, you’ve got goggles, you know, you got a mask on, it’s hot,” Bowman said. “It’s just a very alien kind of feeling compared to what most of us are used to.”
Bowman says the doctors and nurses would sometimes attach pictures of themselves to their PPE so people would know who was under the mask and goggles.
The medical unit had more resources than the average treatment center in Liberia, for example, they had IVs to help keep patients hydrated. But they didn’t have access to more expensive equipment like ventilators and dialysis machines. Bowman says he’s not sure if those things would’ve saved any lives, but it was hard to have such limited options.
The best part was when people survived.
“Our first two saves, our first two survivors that came out, that was a very special time,” Bowman said. “Personally speaking, I found the Liberians to be a wonderful people, very giving and kind and friendly, but a little stoic too. And when they came into the unit a lot of them felt like they were gonna die. And for them to have come through the illness — it was a very special time.”
For each survivor, the team put a hand print with their name on a wall.
Bowman says the most patients they had at a time was around eight or nine. He thinks the success rate was pretty high, but it wasn’t 100 percent. Dealing with deaths brought the medical unit closer together.
“The camaraderie within the group was very strong,” Bowman said. “When anybody’s put in that situation where it’s very high stress and there are people who are surviving and not surviving you can’t help but grow close.”
After working 12-hour shifts at the medical unit for nearly two months, Bowman is back home. He’s healthy, and happy to see his family and ride his bike. He says he’s glad the Liberian survivors he helped treat are back with their families too.
More coverage of USPHS Monrovia Medical Unit:
New York Times: Treating Those Treating Ebola in Liberia
Washington Post: U.S. field hospital for health workers to open in Liberia