When Fridley registered nurse Carrie Jo Cain arrives at a rural hospital in Sierra Leone with much-needed protective gear and training to stop the spread of Ebola, she will double the number of RNs stationed there.
Yet the Kamakwie Wesleyan Hospital serves 600,000 people in the northern part of the country. It’s been without a doctor for two years.
The lack of professional medical staff is just one of the challenges Cain and two other Americans will face.
Cain, 48, who grew up in Sierra Leone as the daughter of missionaries, is undeterred. She is inspired by her Christian faith and love of the country she plans to move back to in January.
“We can work with this. It is not hopeless,” she said. “We can stop this with quarantine.”
As the deadly virus sweeps through western Africa, hers is one of the aid efforts coalescing in Minnesota. An estimated 30,000 people of Liberian descent live in the Twin Cities’ northern suburbs, the largest Liberian population outside of Africa. The medical adviser to the U.S. embassy in Liberia will give a firsthand account of the situation there at a Brooklyn Park community meeting Wednesday.
In another anti-Ebola effort, Fridley-based Lutheran charity Global Health Ministries has airlifted protective medical gear to Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, where they are already in use in hospitals and clinics. The five pallets sent held more than 40,000 gloves, 20,000 facemasks, 900 surgical splash shields, 500 surgical gowns, 240 bottles of disinfectant, 200 protective aprons and 48 hazmat suits and boots.
On Saturday, an even larger shipment of supplies was packed by Minnesota volunteers, including West African immigrants, for ocean transport. It will arrive in September.
“We are fortunate to have trusted people there to clear customs and distribute it,” said the Rev. Timon Iverson, executive director of Global Health Ministries, who visited Monrovia last spring.
“It’s quite a miracle,” Iverson said of the quick receipt and distribution of his group’s first shipment. “You try to get a can of pop through customs, it will take a week.”
Most of the supplies and money involved in that effort were donated by local health and community groups, including Fairview Health System, HealthEast and the Minnesota Liberian Community, Iverson said.
‘Everything was chaotic’
The outbreak is out of control in West Africa, leaving many in Minnesota anxious about relatives, friends and strangers in a country they love.
“When I left, everything was chaotic,” said Dr. Alfredmy Chessor, medical adviser to the U.S. embassy in Liberia, who is visiting the Twin Cities to collect medical equipment and supplies. “Things are still in disarray as far as … working together to get things done.”
The Liberian police and military forces were quarantining infected neighborhoods and a state of emergency had been declared, she said.
“There is an armed military presence out in the street,” Chessor said. “That is something we are not accustomed to. It brings fear and memories of the war.”
On the positive side, she said she has seen great strides is public education about how Ebola is spread. “People are now understanding the magnitude of the problem,” she said.
A fount of hope
While many Western aid workers have pulled out of the region most hard hit by Ebola, Cain, an emergency room nurse at Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, expects to leave for Sierra Leone within the next two weeks. Her team represents three nonprofit groups — the North American Wesleyan Church, Women of Hope and World Hope. The nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse is shipping her team’s supplies to Sierra Leone.
Cain, who speaks one of the country’s native languages, has deep roots there. She moved there in 1966 with her parents and two brothers and stayed until moving to Minnesota in 1982.
She is frank about the challenges she’ll face on her 10-day journey. But there is a glimmer of hope.
So far, there have been no confirmed cases of Ebola at Kamakwie Wesleyan Hospital. And the hospital and the groups helping them already have a network of 1,000 trusted community health workers who are given supplies and information to distribute.
The goal is to use those established networks to distribute anti-Ebola protective gear as needed. “We don’t want to give everyone gloves and masks. That feeds the hysteria,” Cain said.
Ebola is spread through contact with infected bodily fluids, including blood, semen and saliva, making family members of the infected and health care workers the most susceptible. Death rituals have led to the disease’s spread as family members prepare infected bodies for burial. Persuading people to change those practices is where the network of community aid workers becomes critical, she said.
Cain, who has a husband and 7-year-old daughter, said she has had many heartfelt conversations with her husband about the risks she’ll face. The biggest hurdle could be fatigue. “You make mistakes when you are tired,” she said.
The Cain family plans to move to Sierra Leone in January, when Cain will become the hospital matron, the equivalent of the director of nursing in American hospitals.
“We have a chance” to help those threatened by the outbreak, Cain said. “Our goal is to equip them so they are ready.”