My fight against an invisible enemy

Foday Gallah Image copyright Geoffrey York / The Globe and Mail

Health workers fighting Ebola have been named as Time's "Person of the Year", and one face splashed on covers of the magazine is that of an ambulance driver, Foday Gallah, in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Here he tells the BBC of his determination to battle a disease which almost killed him.

In August, I went to pick a little four-year-old boy up from his home. I knew the place well. I had already taken seven members of his family, who all eventually died. He was the last one.

I hadn't taken him before because he had showed no symptoms. But I had asked the neighbours to keep an eye on him and call me if he got sick.

On the afternoon of the morning that I took his father and grandmother and brothers, I got the call. I drove straight to his home and I saw the boy lying in a pool of vomit. I picked him up and I was carrying him in my arms to the ambulance when he vomited again on to my chest. As it turned out, my protective suit was not completely sealed, but in that moment I was very focused on what I was doing, getting him to the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) treatment centre as quickly as possible.

The following Saturday, I went down with a fever. I gave myself some medication, but the fever wouldn't break. I told my family to stay away from me, and the following day I went to a treatment centre to be tested.

I had known I would get it eventually. A lot of great doctors and nurses on the front line have died. They tried to be careful but Ebola still got them.

I had carried so many patients in my ambulance and seen so many die in my arms. I was frightened, but I prayed, and God didn't allow my fears to take over.

You don't want to know what Ebola feels like. If you're not psychologically strong and God is not on your side you will drop before you are taken for treatment because the pain is too great. You have no appetite and nothing stays in your system. You vomit a lot, you are dehydrated - then comes the diarrhoea. It's bad, terrible, devastating. It makes you want to give up on life.

All I wanted was to be looked at, cared for, shown love. And I was shown a lot of love and concern and care by the doctors and nurses who treated me.

I was there for two weeks. In the same tent as me in the treatment centre, a two-month-old baby died from the disease. And I lay listening to a lady who cried until she died. But the little boy who had infected me was there too, and he survived.

I don't know why I survived. Maybe it was because of my faith in God, or maybe just because I went for treatment promptly. And thank God my family did not stigmatise me. They were scared - my mother and my brother - but they never turned their backs on me and that was the same with my boss, Honourable Joseph. They all built me up and gave me courage.

I want people to know that Ebola is not necessarily a death sentence and you can survive it.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Suspected Ebola patients arrive at an MSF treatment centre in August

I went back to my job, part-time, at the beginning of December. I have some immunity to the disease now, but I still wear protective clothes.

I was always kind to my patients but my experience made me double my effort with them. So now I talk to them when they are in my ambulance, to keep their hopes alive. I tell them: "Look, you are not going to die, we are going to get you to the treatment centre. Remember to listen to the doctors there and take their advice and take your medication. You are going to be OK, you are going to go back to your family."

In February, before the Ebola virus, our job involved going to communities to pick up pregnant women, accident victims and patients with hypertension.

Now, ambulance crews are working 24 hours a day. When people are dying you need to be all over the city. It's hectic, our workload has tripled and we don't have enough ambulances in Monrovia to deal with the disease.

Recently I transported 11 people from the Omega area and they all died. Sometimes I feel so sad - when I'm looking at someone and I know that he or she is dying. Sometimes, I just want to give up.

Most of my friends now stay away from me because of my job. Some of them talk to me on the phone but they won't see me in person.

We get a mixed reaction from people in the community. Some come to look at the strange protective suits that we wear, but we also encounter some pretty stiff resistance. And you have to be alert because when you are dressed up in all the gear you can't move very fast.

On one occasion in the suburb of Montserrado, we were loading a man and an old lady on to the ambulance when a group of young people started to gather around us. They shouted at us, telling us to leave their brother behind. "If you take him we will hurt you and trash your ambulance," they said. You could see that they meant it and were really prepared to cause chaos. My colleague and I managed to get out of there, but we had to leave that patient behind.

Foday Gallah - a Time Magazine Person of the Year

Image copyright TIME

Many of the patients I pick up are very afraid. Some of them just cry. They cry because of the pain, but also because their families have deserted them. I remember a 70-year-old lady. When we got to her house she was all alone in this four-bedroom apartment - the children gone, her husband gone, all of her family members gone and she was alone and shivering. I could see death in her eyes. My colleague and I picked her up and took her to the ambulance. We nearly died of suffocation that day in our protective suits.

I found out later that she survived - in fact, she'd never had Ebola at all. But that is the situation we are dealing with.

I tell people not to turn their backs on their relatives. I tell them to put them in a room in an isolated place and give them words of encouragement, and push food and water towards them with a stick. I tell them to say: "Look Mum or Dad, stay in your room. I can't come near you, I can't touch you, but I will look after you until help comes."

When I was sick my family were shunned and stigmatised. I think this is the wrong way to fight this disease. This is why people are hiding and dying before they can be taken to treatment centres.

It is an unknown enemy that we are fighting. Back in the civil war days, not so long ago, if you heard the enemy was coming from the north, you could pack up your bags and head east. You could see bullets flying at night, you could see men with guns moving through the streets.

But Ebola is invisible, and there's no way of knowing where the next attack is coming from. It just hits you and that's it.

Foday Gallah was interviewed by Jonathan Paye Layleh and Andrea Kennedy for the Fifth Floor on the BBC World Service. Listen to the Foday on iPlayer or download episodes of the programme.

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