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Ebola Gatekeeper: 'When The Tears Stop, You Continue The Work'

Nov 23, 2014
Originally published on November 25, 2014 12:53 pm

Wencke Petersen came to Liberia in late August to do what she normally does for Doctors Without Borders in hotspots all over the world — manage supplies.

But the supplies she was meant to organize hadn't arrived yet. So she was asked to help with another job: standing at the main gate of the walled-in compound, turning people away when the unit was full.

For five weeks, she gave people the bad news.

Petersen says there are some people she will never forget — like the man who sat in the rain all day, waiting. "We had no space — he just asked for a place to lie down," she says. "At the end of the day I could take him in ... he died two days later."

Other people died in front of the gate, still waiting to get in.

Petersen finished that stint in Liberia in early October; now she's back in the country again. These days there are fewer cases in Monrovia — but still many cases in rural areas, where people can't reach an Ebola treatment unit.

So this time, Petersen is no longer at the front gate; she's back at her old job, managing supplies.

Click on the audio link above to hear more about Petersen's experience being forced to turn away the ill.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

In Liberia, the number of Ebola cases is no longer increasing exponentially, but health officials say that could change at any time. In the worst days of the epidemic, back in August and September, before the massive aid effort really got underway, the one place to get treated in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, was run by Doctors Without Borders. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports on one woman's grim job during that time.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Wencke Petersen came to Liberia from Germany in late August to do what she normally does for Doctors Without Borders in hotspots all over the world - manage supplies. This time, her job was to organize hygiene kits, but the kits weren't there yet, so she was asked to help with another job.

WENCKE PETERSEN: I was asked if I could help a colleague at the main gate where the patients were arriving.

MCEVERS: The main gate where patients were arriving - a place that's produced some of the most disturbing pictures of the Ebola epidemic. To picture it, imagine a walled-in compound and a chain-link fence where cars can enter. Inside the fence is the largest Ebola treatment unit that's ever been built. Outside are the sick people trying to come in.

MCEVERS: They were really sick. Whole families were coming. And they asked for - to get treatment, but there were days where we couldn't take any patients at all, so it was really hard at this time. So we had to send everybody away.

MCEVERS: Send them away because the unit was full. Every single bed had a patient with Ebola. After two days of doing this job, Petersen's colleague left. For five more weeks, Petersen stood at that gate by herself and told people the bad news. And she did it standing the required three feet away in what looked like a space suit - five feet tall, wearing gloves, a surgical gown, a mask, a facial shield and boots. Sometimes, people would wait outside the fence all day, she says. At the end of the day, she still had to turn them away.

PETERSEN: It's not nice that you have to reject patients, to say, sorry, I don't have space. It's never nice to say, sorry, I cannot help you. I cannot take you in to the hospital. It's - yeah, it's sad, and sometimes, you just turn around and cry. Then when the tears stop, you turn around and continue the work.

MCEVERS: Petersen says, there are some people she will never forget.

PETERSEN: One guy was sitting there in the rain the whole day. We had no space. And yeah, he just asked for a place to lie down, and at the end of the day, I could take him in, as well. And he died two days later. So I could never promise I would have space later in the day. And they died in front of the gate, as well, while they were waiting.

MCEVERS: No.

PETERSEN: Yes.

MCEVERS: You saw that?

PETERSEN: Yeah.

MCEVERS: How many times?

PETERSEN: I don't know. I think too many times.

MCEVERS: The worst thing about the job was that for a space to open up at the treatment unit, someone had to die. But then there were people who survived.

PETERSEN: One of the first days, I - we admitted a boy. He was around about five years ago. And 10 days later, two weeks later, he was discharged. This is always nice. If you patients outside, you open the gate for them, and then two weeks later, something like that - it's nice - always made my day.

MCEVERS: Petersen finished that first stint in Liberia in early October and went back to Germany for some R and R. Now she's here in Liberia again as the Ebola outbreak is changing. There aren't as many people coming to that gate.

PETERSEN: Patients come earlier now and not with a whole family, but they're coming alone. So they're not infecting more patients.

MCEVERS: So fewer cases in Monrovia, but still a lot of cases in rural areas where people can't reach an Ebola treatment unit. Doctors Without Borders and other groups are assembling teams to go out and find these people, set up rural treatment centers and try to stop the disease from spreading. For Petersen, this stint in Liberia is different. Nobody's at the front gate anymore, and she's back to her old job, managing supplies. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Monrovia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.