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Meeting Dr Khan, Sierra Leone Ebola arrowhead

By Umaru Fofana

He lies on a makeshift bed in a ward, quarantined. Probably with his forehead or hind head in both hands. Wondering and quizzing himself as to where he could have gone wrong. He can, for the time being at least, not see the faces of his colleagues – some of them his juniors.

Whenever they enter the ward to administer treatment to him they will be fully masked. To avoid being in his present situation. Such is the fate that has befallen Dr Shek Umar Khan, a man who for years has dedicated himself to the fight against viral haemorrhagic fevers including Ebola. Now he has added to the statistics.

This is an article I had intended to write early this month as I alluded to it in an article I wrote on 26 June 2014. Work schedule and other commitments meant that I have had to write it at a time I least wanted to. I wanted to praise a Sierra Leonean who, like a true soldier, has been risking it all for others to survive. The margin between him and death in this job is very slim.

State House on Tuesday confirmed the most dreaded news I had heard in a very long time. Sierra Leone’s arrowhead in the fight against the rampaging Ebola disease tested positive for the virus himself. I am not sure what is going on in the mind of Dr Khan at this present moment as he lies in a treatment ward in Kailahun. But someone should tell him that the nation is praying for him. He deserves the prayer of all of us and for more reasons than one.

In the last few weeks Dr Khan has been treating and looking after hundreds of people hit by Ebola. Never mind the last decade or so in this his lifelong commitment to fighting viral haemorrhagic fevers in Sierra Leone.

Very unassuming. Very thorough. Very hard working even by the admission of his colleagues. A day in the life of this virologist is a day full of risks yet full of satisfaction and hope.

At 39 years he has carried the weight of Sierra Leone’s plague on his shoulders with the support of his colleagues. A not heavily built man, his shoulders are not broad enough you may think, on meeting him. But very strong to carry this country in this biggest fight since its rebel war in the 1990s. Unfortunately he depends on someone else’s shoulders now in a fight for his own life.

Admittedly, I had never heard of Dr Khan until the Ebola outbreak. He is too unassuming to want to be shot to the limelight. The outbreak of this deadly fever meant his unavoidable shot to prominence with the torch sharply shining on him.

He and I had been in touch on phone only. When I visited Kenema exactly a month ago today, I was dying to meet him. I met one of his colleagues and she said to me that he was a very busy man and would be difficult to pin down. “I know” I replied. As I was about to leave a message with her, he knocked on the door leading a group of people from an iron ore mining company on a study tour to prepare themselves and their health workers. It is that thing in him which makes you remind yourself that medical practitioners are trained in human relation. He clearly did not have time for an interview. Busy. But he did not want to be dismissive. I followed him for about an hour as he took his guests round.

Even at his level he insisted that he needed approval from his bosses in Freetown before he could talk to me. I offered to call the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Brima Kargbo – another extraordinarily humble man. But Dr Khan said he would do so himself. He later did. And got the all-clear. And he was civil and humble enough to tell me. We spent two hours together. Chatting, but also looking for a suitable place for my TV interview.

The virologist has not been oblivious of the danger health workers in this fight are exposed to. When I met him last month, he said “I am afraid for my life I must say”. But was quick to add, ” I enjoy this job, that is why I take the maximum precaution”.

The self-effacing man was full of life and seemed unruffled. He looked passionate about what saving lives and could hardly look at me in the face. During our TV interview I had to keep reminding him to look at me. Very humble. Very meek.

“I make sure whenever I am going into the isolation unit I am in my full protective clothing, and I make sure my nurses are all in theirs” he said to me. “I even have a mirror in my office” he went on which he said served as his policeman which he salutes before getting into action to save lives. He looked at himself in it to be sure there were no openings to his protective clothing.

Equating the fight against Ebola to the fight against terrorism, Dr Khan pleaded with the public to appreciate the sacrifice health workers are making especially in such situations. “We should be hailed like US troops returning home from fighting terror” he told me. He paused. He smiled. And told me his birthday – “September the eleventh “. He smiled again.

Health minister, Miatta Kargbo was absolutely spot on when she described him as “a national hero”. He is nothing short of that. His fight against Ebola has immortalised him. Yes I know he is still alive and will live for many more years. Like the minister said, no efforts should be spared to revive this man so he can continue with what he said to me he always wanted to do.

The government has called on all Sierra Leoneans to pray for the recovery of a man who has helped many others recover. He sometimes works on a 14-hour daily schedule attending to patients and visitors – both government and international officials. For the two days I spent at the Kenema Government hospital, there were no dull moments for him. He was busy always, and all ways. And for the two hours I spent up-close and personal with him, he seemed unruffled – albeit careful – by the threat of Ebola to him.

With a slight limp to the right, he was running around to tend to patients. And he was passionate about “saving lives which I have been doing for over ten years beginning with Lassa fever here at this centre” he told me.

Asked whether he was enjoying his job, he smiled to me and said “I am enjoying it. In fact as a matter of fact when I finished my specialty and came backĀ  [home] they were asking me ‘Dr Khan where would you like to work?’ I said ‘I will go back to Kenema’”. I challenged him saying that there was no Ebola here then. He chuckled and said that there was the strong suspicion the virus would emerge before referring me to an article that was to be published later in July in a science journal in which he and some of his colleagues had predicted the emergence of the virus.

All his colleagues told me he was very meticulous with protecting himself.

This is a man who has been the Number One Enemy against Ebola in Sierra Leone. he stayed in a government service that he easily have left and gone for greener pastures and could have turned even dried leaves into in flourishing garden.

I can only say to Dr Khan that he is in our hearts. And he is in God’s heart. With the blessing of the Holy Month of Ramadan, it shall be well with you, doc. You will return and we shall discuss this and laugh about it. Just lie on your side. Let your head carry itself. And let you hands rub themselves with glee. You are well.

(C) Politico 24/07/14


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