Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Brilliant Lecture by Debbie Wilson on Experiences Battling Ebola with Doctors Without Borders in Liberia

Today, we had the pleasure of hosting Ms. Debbie Wilson, a registered nurse from Lenox, MA, in my Humanitarian Logistics and Healthcare class.

Ms. Wilson left for Liberia last September to work with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) for 6 weeks.

Her presentation was mesmerizing!

Through numerous photos that she took at the Ebola treatment facility, which she helped to set up, after a journey that included plane travel, travel by truck, and then by canoe, she vividly demonstrated to the students in my class and a few invited guests and me the criticality of logistics in providing support to healthcare professionals battling the biggest outbreak of Ebola in history.

She spoke about helping to set up the Ebola treatment facility for 120 patients, the importance of medical supplies and equipment, which would have to be delivered from Geneva, Switzerland. She talked about her personal experiences donning the special protective gear with hygienists who would then spray the chlorine on her after which she could carefully disrobe. She dealt with temperatures of 100 degrees, horrible rains, insufficient food for the staff - essentially making do with bread and mayonnaise with some ketchup for many meals. She had no fresh fruit her entire time in Liberia. She spoke of how they got rid of the medical waste  by burning it in a pit, and once there was an explosion setting off an expanded fire.

To hear that it took days for the blood samples to be tested for Ebola with samples being transported over many miles to the nearest lab was touching to say the least and demonstrated how primitive the healthcare system is in parts of western Africa. A lab finally was airlifted by a helicopter and delivered so that testing for the Ebola virus in patients would then take only a few hours on-site.

She spoke of the cold chain for vaccines - malaria and Ebola have very similar symptoms, and the importance of educating the population about the disposal of the bodies. Ebola survivors became partners in educating the population over the radio to instill trust and that survival from this horrific disease was possible.

She talked about the importance of seeking out village elders to inform them about the important role of the healthcare providers in battling Ebola. This was essential since not far from where Debbie was based, 6 healthcare workers had been stoned to death.

We were in the presence today of one of the most courageous women that I have ever met. And, yes, she has gotten another call from Doctors Without Borders to go back to serve.

Her resilience, stamina, dedication to relieving suffering and saving lives had us all awe-struck.

As one of my students later said to me, her talk was "life-changing" for those who had the privilege of hearing her speak.

Ms. Wilson wrote a Letter to the Editor to The New York Times last October that challenged the quarantines for returning Ebola healthcare workers. Since then she has spoken out about many issues, including ethics, and public health and has been the subject of numerous interviews. 

She wrote this beautiful essay on her reflections on her experiences fighting Ebola in Liberia.

We were amazed that the nurses in Africa that she worked side by side with had not gotten paid from September until December - this is so terribly unfair and unjust. People risking their lives on a daily basis under extreme conditions and not even getting compensated for their herculean efforts. As one of the students said, "Where is the government response?"

Ms. Debbie Wilson was an extraordinary Professor for a Day at the Isenberg School of Management today and she left an indelible mark on all of us. One person can change the world.