When Doctors Without Borders called nurse Kim Federici to join their forces fighting Ebola in spring 2014, she answered without reservation.
Even though little was known about the disease at the beginning of the outbreak in West Africa, the 73-year-old, white-haired nurse who lives in Texas considered it a way to expand her medical proficiency and “this was like I’d just been offered the pinnacle of experience.”
Federici previously worked with Doctors Without Borders on drug-resistant tuberculosis in Armenia, and she was used to dealing with chronic illnesses including cancer.
“There is no cure for Ebola, so when you’re treating Ebola, you’re basically doing hospice-care sorts of supportive medication to the point where they recover or die,” she said.
Her greatest concern was how her family would feel about her going, but it turns out she didn’t need to worry. Her husband and both grown children were on board.
In August 2014, Federici set out for Foya, Liberia, a rural town near the borders of Sierra Leone and Guinea. As soon as she arrived in the afternoon, she began meeting the local staff and visiting medical sites. It was the start of two months’ worth of 18-hour days.
At first, the community was in “huge denial,” she said. Local medicinal beliefs clashed with Western medicine, and even worse, some thought the visiting medical team was there to harvest organs and blood.
“We had to jump onto that and demonstrate that yes, the disease was most fatal if it wasn’t treated, and it wasn’t just a trick.”
Changing the public’s perception of the disease was just as important as treating the sick and stopping the transmission to those who were in contact with the hundreds of patients who came to the clinics.
Through widespread education campaigns, led by local people who could speak the language, the community learned to bring people in for care as soon as symptoms appeared. There was a constant flow of patients — “we went from the first few patients to more than 100 within a week” — and the need to keep everything disinfected was acute.
“There was more chlorine in that air than you could breathe,” Federici recalled.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, of the 700 patients who came to the Ebola Treatment Center in Foya, 252 of them died.
So many of them were in the same family. One man had eight family members die within a two-day period, including his wife and son. He would call Federici in the morning to see what happened through the night, and she would tell him another family member had died. “It just kept going … the agony he experienced.”
But when she visited his community about a week later, he stopped her car and thanked her. “I asked him why, and he said ‘because my daughter and granddaughter are still alive.’
“At that moment, I saw the depth of the human spirit so clearly in terms of its ability to rise up,” she said.
When the villagers learned that someone had survived, even with their own pain of losing so many loved ones, they would rejoice with the survivor’s family.
“To me, that was beyond anything I had ever seen. I’ve been dealing with cancer and leukemia, and I never saw the ability of the human spirit to transcend that grief and come out of it with such a positive sense of life.”
After Foya’s level of transmission lowered to zero, Federici went the following year to help in Sierra Leone for her next two-month stint.
To date, the Ebola virus has sickened nearly 28,000 people primarily in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and killed more than 11,000, according to the World Health Organization. Although new cases have greatly slowed, the epidemic is not yet over.
When Federici looks back at all the hard work, the depths of sorrow, and the perpetual meals of rice concoctions – at home, her first meal was the rarest of hamburgers – she feels her own sense of gratitude.
“To be able to be involved in medical care at that level was the highest honor in my life.”
Would she go back? “In a heartbeat.”