Ebola Epidemic In Liberia Hits Close To Home For This Kelley MBA

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“Ticking time bomb.”

“The worst outbreak of Ebola since its discovery.”

The quotes of certain doom are all we read about Liberia these days. The recent outbreak of Ebola in Liberia has weighed heavily in my head and on my heart after visiting the good people of Monrovia this past March as part of the Emerging Markets course in the Kelley Evening MBA program. Not a day passes that I don’t ponder the situation there, as Liberia is at the center of most media coverage, but also because I have a rotating screen saver of pictures from the last few years, and many of my photos from that trip come up every day.

Hospital Administrators presenting our group with their thanks in March 2014, weeks before the Ebola virus hit the Liberian border. A gracious, well-educated, and enthusiastic group who now face something none of them foresaw when this photo was taken.

With the passing of Dr. Samuel Brisbane, the Medical Director at John F. Kennedy Medical Center (JFKMC) where we worked, being in the news soon after the Ebola outbreak had spread to Monrovia, the situation hit close to home. While we did not meet Dr. Brisbane during our brief stay, we met and worked closely with those who worked with him every day. Fewer than two weeks before his passing, Dr. Wvannie Scott-McDonald, CEO of JFKMC, was sitting in my home with several of us from the MBA program discussing the effects of Ebola on the hospital. At that point, there were a few cases in Monrovia, and the hospital had prepared itself with an isolation unit, but nothing to the scale of what has recently happened. She and the other administrators were deeply concerned, but they had no idea how it would soon affect them so personally.

In some ways, the projects that our three teams worked on while there seem trivial today. How could the hospital concentrate on plans to track and control costs, generate new revenue streams, and implement a PR campaign when they face a constant threat of death? The focus must certainly be not only on keeping patients alive, but also the health care workers, whose ranks have been devastated by the virus.

As my colleagues on the trip have described well here on the Kelley BizBlog, we were there to help bring about a change in reputation for the JFK Medical Center, which has suffered in light of a general distrust of Western medicine, predominantly in the rural areas of Liberia and much of West Africa, but also in the slums of the major cities. Folklore and tradition sends most people to their nearest medicine man (or woman) for the cure to their ailments.

The West Point slum in Monrovia is now notorious for having been under quarantine by the Liberian government in order to prevent the spread of the virus in the absence of sufficient treatment. Stories dominated NPR, The New York Times, and broadcast media discussing relatives pulling family members who were sick out of facilities meant to treat them because they didn't believe Ebola was real, or that it was just a product of the government. In other cases, sick children and adults are being dumped in the streets, for fear of further spread of the virus within a family’s home.

I hear these stories and my heart aches. What can be done? Would some of the community outreach we had proposed to the hospital administration have changed the views of the populace enough that it might have saved even one life? Why don’t people “get it?” What happens when all of their health care workers are either dead from the virus or leave their jobs because they’re too afraid of the consequences? All of these questions swirl around along with a desire to continue to help.

One of the things we heard the most during our interviews with hospital administrators was that they needed more and better-trained workers. Doctors, nurses, techs, attendings. The hospital encourages its employees to continue their education as part of their employment contract. Not only is the staff paid wages far better than the national average, but they are given a free education. Over 90% of their nurses have bachelor’s degrees. A growing number are working on their master’s. More and more foreign doctors visit on rotation every year, helping train the next generation of native Liberian doctors.

Probably the most pressing issues today, though, are that there simply aren't enough beds in hospitals and clinics to treat everyone, and they lack the proper supplies and equipment (which they need in massive quantities) to sanitize staff treating the ill appropriately. Just like public outreach, however, the help can’t come fast enough.

But then I read hopeful articles like a New York Times profile of a Monrovia native, Dr. Mosoka Fallah, who has returned to the slums of his youth to help treat and hopefully eradicate the spread of the virus. As with many Liberian natives, Dr. Fallah left Liberia for America and its superior educational opportunities during a decades-long period of civil unrest. The administrators at JFKMC, most of whom have degrees from schools like Harvard, Duke, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and IU, also returned to Liberia to help revive and transform the health care system, an opportunity few of us in the West would ever have.

Which brings me back to the opportunity to effect change. We were given that opportunity. All of our teams proposed changes the hospital could make to help make JFK Medical Center a world class facility, but it won’t happen without more help from the outside. The U.S. government this past week announced that it would set up a home base for a network of treatment clinics in Monrovia, staffing them with up to 3,000 military medical personnel, which is the first sign that the U.S. wants to take a lead in the crisis. But the JFK Memorial Hospital still can’t run sophisticated blood tests because it doesn't have the equipment or trained techs to run it and decipher the results. Improving health care in Liberia, including but not limited to containing the Ebola outbreak, is going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to overcome. If we continue to help in whatever ways we can, we have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of Liberians.

Consider supporting the Dr. Samuel Brisbane fund, which will aid in supplying the equipment needed to protect health care workers trying to stem the spread of the virus.

And consider giving your time – ask a friend or family member who works in health care what they can do to help. Viral help via personal networks (of which Kelley has one of the best at 100,000 alumni) can help overcome this virus.