Friday, January 23, 2015

Wherever You Would Call Me

     Many people have asked me why I am willingly choosing to spend six months working in the country that has been most affected by the current Ebola outbreak. I’ve been asked things like, “Why can’t you just help people here?” and I’ve listened to people question why we’ve invested so much in stopping Ebola when other diseases kill far more people each year. The answer to the question of why I’m going to Sierra Leone in the middle of the largest outbreak of Ebola in history is two-fold and I hope to be able to explain it to you so that you can better understand why this is so important to me. Here are the two main reasons why I’ve chosen to go to Sierra Leone:

1. I’ve studied global health, epidemiology and emerging infectious diseases.  I don’t think that there’s any other place in the world where my knowledge and skills could be put to better use. 
2. I’ve never felt more certain that I was meant to do something in my entire life.

     The first reason is fairly self-explanatory.  Everything I’ve done in school has brought me to this point.  While I would much rather the Ebola outbreak have never happened at all, the fact remains that it is happening and many people are reluctant to go or have familial or other career obligations that prevent them from going at this point in their lives.  As a 25-year old I have none of these obligations. Yet if someone had asked me to do this several years ago my answer would have been a resounding no.  I never saw myself doing anything like this. In fact, work like this always sounded terrifying to me. Things change.
     The second reason is more difficult for me to explain. I remember the moment I first heard about the Ebola outbreak.  My immediate reaction was to say “I’m going to fight Ebola.”  I knew that was where I needed to be.  I was serious about my intention to go from the very beginning, but I’m not sure I thought it would really happen.  I figured it was just something I would say at a time when I couldn’t actually do anything because I still had a year of school left and then the outbreak would be over before I had the opportunity to help.  Of course, that’s not what happened. As time went on, I continued to assert that I was going to work in the Ebola response after I finished my coursework.  I started to get anxious at the beginning of the fall semester.  I wasn’t nervous about going.  I was anxious because I couldn’t do anything other than sit in a classroom while an Ebola outbreak raged on in West Africa.  It broke my heart and made me feel totally useless.
     Over the past several months I've had my fair share of moments of fear and doubt as I thought about what I've signed up to do. Although my risk is very low because I won’t be treating patients and because the outbreak has subsided a bit, there is still widespread transmission in Sierra Leone and knowing that I'll be in the country hardest hit by Ebola is somewhat scary. I won't deny that I'm a little nervous. I’m definitely excited to head out into the field, but also nervous. But this article by Dr. Stephen Hatch has brought me comfort and confidence as I've continued to contemplate what I'm going to be facing. In the article he says, 
Why do the police put their lives on the line on a daily basis? To preserve order. Why do firefighters run headlong to the fire? To put it out, of course. Ebola is not really different, and it is my fire; along with many other colleagues, I go to put it out. The vast majority of people who pursue these callings do not make the ultimate sacrifice, but they are willing to do so because they believe in something higher than their own lives...I would very much prefer to return whole, but if I do not, it will be because I could not see any other way forward." 

Although I'm not a physician, Dr. Hatch and I have much in common, particularly a passion for infectious disease and international health. Like Dr. Hatch many people have also asked me if I'm insane for seeking out an opportunity to head into the hot zone. Like Dr. Hatch, I go for personal reasons. I don’t personally know anyone who has died from Ebola and yet every death I read about weighs on my heart as if my best friend had died. I'm well aware that malaria, cholera and numerous other diseases are still causing far more suffering and death than Ebola, but there's just something different about Ebola. It strikes at the very heart of human nature. We’re social beings and we’re meant to live in community. Even I (a socially awkward introvert who enjoys her personal space) would be heartbroken if I were unable to hold the hand of an ill family member who was in the hospital or comfort a grieving friend with a hug. Without regard for how we feel, Ebola rips away these opportunities for comfort, compassion and companionship that make up the very core of our humanity. I won't be treating patients. I won't be able to look into the eyes of someone dying from Ebola and tell them that everything will be okay. I won't be the one standing there in a hazmat suit as they take their last breath, isolated from all the people they love most in this world. But I can do something. What I can do is to honor this calling that I feel so strongly in my heart and productively use the knowledge I've gained as a public health student and give everything I can to help stop this epidemic in the only way I know how. Like Dr. Hatch, Ebola is my fire and I have to help put it out.  
     I recently heard someone speak about what it means to receive a calling in life. Often times when people find a job they love they refer to it as their calling. But in reality, no matter how much you may love it, a job is just something temporary. A calling is something much greater, something eternal and when you receive it, you’ll know. When this mantle is thrown to you, you have a choice to make about the kind of faith you will live from that moment on. You can sit at home and be safe or you can go out and live your faith. When Isaiah heard God’s call he willingly and freely said, “Here I am! Send me!” Isaiah was never forced into doing anything. Nobody is forcing me to go to Sierra Leone. In fact, people I love and respect have asked me NOT to go. But I can’t do that. This job isn’t my calling, but rather a greater calling has lead me to this job and I know that there’s a reason that I’m meant to do this. Some people have told me that I’m brave for doing this, but that’s just not true. I’m an anxiety prone, mildly obsessive compulsive girl who would be totally incapable of doing this if I didn’t have faith that this is God’s plan for me. I know that this isn’t going to be the easiest thing in the world, but I trust that I can overcome any anxiety I may have or any obstacles I may face if I trust fully in God. This song sums it up nicely...

     I’m grateful to play a tiny role in a major effort to stop Ebola.  I’m grateful to my family and friends for their support, encouragement and prayers.  I’m grateful for the incredible educational opportunities I’ve had at La Salle (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much reading “The Hot Zone” in 9th grade has crossed my mind since this outbreak started), PC, Georgetown and BUSPH and for the teachers who have helped to prepare me for a situation just like this.  I’m grateful for the other BU/BMC people who are in West Africa now or who will be there soon and for all those working in the response efforts across many different organizations.  I’m grateful for the people of West Africa, many of whom have lost family members and friends to Ebola, who serve alongside their counterparts from all over the world in the fight to stop this outbreak.  Most importantly, I’m grateful to God for giving me this opportunity to serve the people of Sierra Leone in the best way I know how.

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