Dr. Senga Omeonga met us under a huge mango tree outside St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. Behind the main building, several dozens of disinfected rubber boots worn by health care workers were propped upside down on stakes planted on a patch of lawn.
This is the hospital where Omeonga works as general surgeon and the head of Infection Prevention Control. It's also where he came down with Ebola on Aug. 2.
He says his days in treatment were "a living hell." And the experience has changed his view of the world — and the way he treats patients.
Omeonga is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo but came to Liberia four years ago. He's 53, married and has four children — two sons and two daughters. His family lives in Canada.
He remembers how unprepared everyone was for the outbreak. Medical workers were touching patients with their bare hands in the early days. He himself treated a patient with a wound from a motorcycle accident. When the patient was later diagnosed with Ebola, Omeonga was quarantined. But he didn't catch the virus.
Then he treated a sibling of Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian-American who flew to Nigeria after contracting the Ebola virus and later died of the disease. And that, Omeonga says, is how he thinks he became one of Liberia's nearly 8,000 cases.
Omeonga was one of the fortunate ones. He was taken to the Ebola treatment unit, or ETU, at the Eternal Love Winning Africa hospital. After several weeks, he recovered and is now back at work.
He spoke with us about how Ebola nearly took his life — and how the experience changed his life and the way he practices medicine.
You must have been very scared.
Yeah, I was very, very scared. Knowing what Ebola is and the death rate ... the chance of survival was very, very low. Because I was vomiting, my only hope was to take as much as I can, the fluids, the orals. I was forcing myself.
You mean the oral rehydration liquids to replenish lost fluids?
Yeah. So I was taking that every day, at least four liters every day. I think they helped to keep me very well-hydrated, even though I was vomiting, and I was very weak. And then, I was transferred to ETU. That was a very bad experience. A very, very bad experience. People were lying on the floor — no bed, very few [health care workers]. They come in the morning, maybe once a day.
Describe the scene in the ETU.
For one week I had my bed in the hallway. And you see everybody laying on the floor. They just gave us [a] mattress to put on the floor. At that time there was one toilet. But because a lot of people were using it — Ebola comes with the diarrhea — it overflowed and clogged. "Poo poo" all over the floor. So when I wanted to use the bathroom, there was no way. We just stand at the door. [There was] no way to go in.
What did you do?
They were giving the people buckets. So everybody has a small bucket for vomit, for everything. You're living like a nonhuman. You get in a depression.
And sometimes you can have your bucket with you for all day [with] nobody to empty it. So you live in this area; the smell is all over. Sometimes you don't even have food because nobody [can] come in, [there are] not enough PPEs [personal protective equipment] to give to the staff. And you can scream all day of hunger. That's how people were living in their ETU day in/day out. You can have food maybe once a day because nobody can come three times to give you the food.
It sounds subhuman.
Yes. A lot of people died because of lack of care inside the ETU.
And they're dying around you.
Every day. When you wake up in the morning, you see the person who was next to you is no longer there. There were a few discharges [of patients who were cured] at that time. The one who get discharged really was a big event. But it was just death, death, death, death. And you see people, they're very weak. And you have someone that is very dehydrated; the water is there but nobody to give to [them], and they die of dehydration.
When people die, are their bodies removed right away?
Yeah, sometimes even less than 30 minutes or 10 minutes the body is gone, because they have maybe 10 patients waiting outside for someone to die inside to get a bed. So those waiting for a bed, they're happy. And for those inside it's just waiting: Who's next, who's next, who's next?
When you were at your most depressed, what did you do to keep your spirits?
One of the patients brought me a Bible. I was reading the Bible and I was talking very often with my family in Canada. I had a lot of people calling me: my colleagues, my nurses or my patients. And they were praying with me over the phone because there was no visitation at that time. That gave me a lot of hope.
Over time, did caregivers help to ease the situation?
Yeah, the health care [workers], they were very good, and they were very dedicated to the patients. I really congratulate them. The courage they were giving, the attention they were giving to the patients. I was even thinking they were pastors because they were just coming, and sometimes instead of giving you medication, they start preaching and talking about the Bible and maybe read a verse of the Bible. And then they give you the medication, and say, "OK, God will help you."
When you have Ebola you can't be touched by anybody; people come to you wearing these big PPEs. Did you miss the human touch?
When you become a patient, you want the doctor to touch you and to maybe check your hemoglobin. I remember I was just all the time asking, "Dr. [Jerry] Brown, I think you need to check my hemoglobin." He said, no, I think everything is fine. I said, "No, you need to check my hemoglobin." So you want someone to touch you. You miss the human touch. But at the same time, you understand they need to protect themselves. Because, yeah, they have a PPE, but you can make a mistake. When they touch the patients they [can come ] in contact with the virus, and they can contaminate themselves when they're removing the PPE or even when the gloves are damaged.
It was normal to see someone wearing PPE. But it was difficult because you cannot recognize the person treating you, you don't see the face. Everything is difficult to recognize.
So they must become kind of nonhuman too.
[Laughs] At some point, yes. The funny thing is when I was discharged I could not even recognize them.
Did you think you were going to die?
At some point, when I passed my second week, when my diarrhea stopped, my vomiting stopped, I was having hope I would survive. Because at that time, I started eating well, I started having my appetite back, and I started having my strength little by little. And the fear of dying started vanishing.
You were given ZMapp, the experimental anti-Ebola drug.
I was among the first recipient in Liberia. I was very lucky.
Were you the only one to get ZMapp?
No, there were three who received it, three health care workers.
Do you think you would have survived without it?
Maybe. Because at that time, I started to feel much better; my vomiting stopped. The diarrhea was not that much anymore; maybe I was start going to the bathroom maybe two or three times a day, and before it was more than that. That's the time I received my ZMapp. After receiving the second dose I started feeling much better, much stronger. So I think it helped speed up the recovery.
Your two colleagues who also were given ZMapp, did they survive?
One died because of underlying conditions. But one was in a coma, and once she received the ZMapp, after the second dose, she got off from her coma, and she started working, and she survived.
What was it like being disconnected from the outside world?
It's very difficult. You don't feel like [you're] living in a normal world anymore. The ETU is like a living war or hell. It's like you're living in hell. The only person you see is the nurse, and they even stay a distance from you when you talk, so no touch. So you feel like ... I don't know how to describe it ... maybe a ghost.
Is there anything that you learned from being a patient that you keep in mind as you treat Ebola patients?
I learned the suffering of Ebola. As a doctor, I'd never seen a disease like Ebola. What I experienced with Ebola, I don't think there is any sickness that can equal Ebola symptoms — the way people feel in the body. I don't want these [Ebola patients] to go through what I went through. It's a very, very unbearable disease. Even after surviving, when you think about what you went through, it's not easy. I think that experience gave me the courage to do what I'm doing now [at the hospital].
Does it make you feel invincible having survived Ebola?
No, it doesn't [make me] feel invincible, but it gave me just another dimension of thinking: Ebola, we can overcome it. If I did it, other people also can do it.
Do you feel like it changed you?
It changed my way of work. I need to be very cautious. Infection prevention is a key element, so taking care of the patient, you have to protect yourself. Even though you are immune, you can also transmit to others. So I can bring the virus from one patient to another. So it changed my way of dealing with my work. Also, it changed my way to see this: We, as health care workers, we are victims, we are in the front line, but we also are the solution to this problem. If we having the fear of facing the virus, this virus will never be eradicated in Liberia. We are the warriors, so we need to fight this disease.
Has it changed the way you look at your own life?
It helped me to see the world very different now. Nothing is [taken for] granted.
Do people treat you differently knowing you're an Ebola survivor?
The stigma is almost over. But when we just came from the ETU, the stigma was there.
When people were coming to see me they'll stay at the door outside and just greet you there. So they don't even want to come inside the door, inside of your house, because they're still thinking you can give the virus to others. So even to go outside, it was very difficult. For people who know you and saw you, maybe at a gathering, maybe a church, people start taking a distance from you. So you have to live with it and deal with it.
I've dealt with that in my way. It's normal to have fear of being close to me, but I think I'm the one who feels sorry for you because I survived Ebola, but you haven't contracted Ebola yet. And I feel sorry for you just in case — God forbid — you have the disease [and] you may not have the chance of survival. It's normal to have a fear, I understand you. But we don't contract Ebola this way [from survivors]. So we need to agree to accept those people who survived Ebola. They are free of the virus.
Did it make you feel doubly victimized having been victimized already by Ebola?
Yes. Because you are victimized being sick and now victimized by the community or the society.
You must have felt lonely.
Yeah, you feel lonely. You feel like you're rejected.
How has your family dealt with this?
Thank God my family was not here when I was sick. All of my family lives in Canada. My daughter was here in May and left in June. I was sick just a month after she left Liberia.
Did you wish they were there?
If I was sick they would be the ones to take care of me, and they could be exposed [to Ebola]. Maybe I could have a chance to survive, maybe one of them not. So I praise God for none of them being with me.
Do you remember the day you were declared Ebola free?
It was Aug. 27 when my test result came, and they called me and said I was free of Ebola.
What was that like?
I could not believe it. I was very, very happy. I was praising the Lord.
Did you celebrate?
No. I prayed. There was no way to celebrate while you see a lot of people around you dying and sick. I was just praising the Lord and saying OK, "Thank you, to make it through this." In the meantime, even though you're happy, you see all the people lying, dying, so it's no celebration.
Are you treating Ebola patients now? How many Ebola patients do you have at the hospital?
This [hospital] is not an ETU; we don't treat them here. But we can receive some suspected cases that we transfer to ETUs [elsewhere in Monrovia]. I think, so far, we've received like six suspected cases since we opened the hospital two weeks now which we transferred to the ETU.
You said when you went to the ETU you had 15 colleagues who were also infected. What happened to them?
Six survived, and we lost nine.
Yeah, we were co-workers. They really work here as a family, everybody, we all love each other here. To lose even one person is very, very sad. And those nine people died I think in three days.
Were you with them at the ETU? Were you able to give them any comfort?
We were hopeless because we were all very weak. I remember one day when I was able to walk a little bit inside the ETU, and I went there and the two sisters were there with us. I couldn't even recognize one of the brothers who was here, Brother George. And the sister said, "Doctor, that's Brother George." And he was very weak. He had his bottle of mineral water; he could not even take it. I just look at him and said, "Brother." He looked at me, and he just opened his eye, and it was finished. So very sad.
The president of Liberia had said she wants zero new cases by Christmas.
I don't think it is realistic. Maybe we hope by January or February or in three months maybe we can, because we are containing the outbreak in Liberia. But it's not over yet. Only one case can make things again coming back. So we have to be very prudent. It's not time for celebration yet.
What would you say to people who are in isolation wards and cut off from the rest of the world, if you could say something to them, being a survivor?
What I can tell them is even though they are isolated it's not because the people don't love them. The people will still be loved by their family, by their loved ones. They need to keep hope. Ebola is a deadly virus, but there's a lot of people who survived. They just have to keep hope, take their medication, drink a lot of water to fight the dehydration, because one of the causes of death is dehydration. And they need to remember people outside are praying for them, loving them, and want them back.