Liberia lacks ambulances for Ebola patients

FREEMAN RESERVE, Liberia -- The man with reddened eyes sat in his underwear outside his thatched home. He was weak from diarrhea, so his wife called the Ebola hotline for an ambulance.

Now that it was here, though, he didn't want to go.

"Have you been around someone who died? Ever been around any sick people?" asked Gordon Kamara, the first responder.

"No sir," the sick man replied, as more than a dozen neighbors crowded around to see. More emerged on the porches of nearby homes in alarm at the sight of first responders in gloves and face masks.

"Mr. Kollis, your appearance to me is not well," Kamara said. "If you do not come with me now, I will not be coming back for you."

Neighbors pleaded with Kollis to leave, saying someone who stayed in the house already had died of Ebola. Kollis refused, saying he is worried who will provide for his children.

The first responders said his children will get sick and die if he stays.

"Who will pick up your diarrhea? You are losing water quickly. Do you want to die here?" Kamara said.

The medical team from the Response 2 private ambulance then tries talking to other relatives, but it's of no use. There are other patients who want to be saved and not enough ambulances to collect them, Kamara said, and the ambulance moves on.

Ebola has killed nearly 2,000 people in Liberia, and is growing exponentially because the sick often remain at home, where they spread the virus through bodily fluids. There are not enough ambulances to drive across the rutted roads into the countryside where the disease flourishes.

Even when ambulances can reach people, the fear of being transported to a facility where more than half the patients leave in body bags keeps some from going.

"I don't have police or the authority to force them to leave their homes," said Kamara, who spent the first four hours of his day trying to find enough protective clothing to do his job. "We still have a lot of people to go pick up. We can't stay here."

Families say the wait time can be up to four days. Many instead resort to taxis -- which threatens to spread the virus -- while others push sick relatives in wheelbarrows, to the horror of onlookers.

The cases are endless, and sometimes far from the Ebola treatment centers.

Kamara and his crew head next to the village of Freeman Reserve, more than 30 miles from the capital through fields of rubber trees and past children bathing in the pools of drainage ditches.

At least eight people have died here since July from Ebola, and the 50 people who were in contact with them now have been moved to an elementary school turned into a holding center. Three are now showing symptoms and sit outside the principal's office. Two-year-old Nathaniel Edward is listless and limp.

The boy's grandmother died of Ebola, and now his mother is sick too. Kamara and his co-worker Konah Deno don their yellow protective suits and eye goggles.

"Don't worry, you will do well," he tells the pair, as his assistant sprays a mixture of bleach and water on the ground behind them to disinfect the path they have walked.

On the way to the clinic in Monrovia, people on the side of the road hail the ambulance to get help for a sick woman. Kamara stops because today he has space, but in the end it is futile: She decides not to go after all.

The six patients inside Kamara's ambulance arrive at Island Clinic just as the facility is ready to release more than 50 survivors whose families line the dirt road outside the entrance. Taped to the wall nearby is a list of names, below which someone has scrawled in red marker "THESE PATIENTS DID NOT MAKE IT!"

Kamara is off to collect nine more patients before his day is done, but says he'll be thinking about those he has just left at the clinic.

"I wish them well. I pray that God will be with them because He heals. The doctors treat but God heals."


Follow Krista Larson at https://www.twitter.com/klarsonafrica.

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