I never thought I would see Eric again, and I was right.
The last time I saw Eric, I was on my porch. He stood several feet away, silhouetted by the setting sun. I leaned against the railing, exhausted from days of travel and utterly heartbroken.
“I’m leaving,” I said, “The Peace Corps is sending us back to the U.S.”
Eric smiled, and I felt my soul shatter just a little more.
“I’m glad,” he said, “They are doing well to take you people out of here. Meanwhile, we will keep working and praying for this outbreak to end.”
“I would come closer to say goodbye,” he continued, “But I know your mom would get upset, and I don’t want to put you at risk.” He was referring to my mother, who had been less than enthused when cases of Ebola began to appear in my community.
The first time I met Eric was at a gathering at the hospital compound. He was a bright, young nurse who was committed to his work at the hospital. In rural West Africa, where competent health workers are few and far between, he was an invaluable asset to the community. We became fast friends, and he was eager to help design and implement community projects. After we first met, the next time he saw me on the road, he stopped me and asked, “When are we meeting to plan the malaria program?”
When the first case of the mysterious hemorrhagic fever from Guinea was admitted to the hospital, he stayed up all night, draining bags and bags of the little IV fluid in the hospital and cleaning soiled bed linens, providing as much care as he could with the limited supplies in the rural, understaffed facility.
When the patient died the next day, her sister kissed and embraced the body. Then, she left the hospital, sobbing as she walked and reaching out to touch everyone who passed her. I was walking with Eric when we saw her coming down the hill. I immediately recoiled when Eric told me who she was. Eric went to her, took her hands as she continued to wail, and said, “You need to go home right now. Burn your clothes and wash yourself with bleach water. Your sister had a contagious illness, and you don’t want it to pass on to you.”
When the first patient and her sister were confirmed as cases of Ebola and most of the hospital staff fled, Eric kept working, staying sometimes for double and triple shifts. He was forced to purchase his own gloves and sanitizing alcohol, as the hospital had none in stock. One of his colleagues came down with the virus and died. The hospital refused to release the body to the family for fear of spreading the disease even further in the community. A crowd of grieving friends and family gathered at the hospital entrance, yelling and demanding that the body be released. They very nearly broke out into violence before they were calmed by one of the two physicians working at the hospital.
Eric had not been paid in over six months due to a clerical oversight.
One day, I asked him why he wouldn’t leave and go to the capital, which still had no cases at that time.
“How can I leave?” he asked. “There are people here that need treatment, and we have to help them!”
When Doctors Without Borders constructed the Ebola Treatment Unit on the outskirts of town, Eric was in the first group of health workers to be trained, and began to divide his time between working at the hospital and the ETU. People began to accuse him of helping foreign organizations infiltrate the community and spread lies.
I called Eric every day after I left—looking for updates, asking if he was safe, and demanding that he protect himself.
Every time, I could hear the grin in his voice as he said: “I am fine. We are fine. I am being careful, and we are praying that the outbreak will end soon!”
Eric died in August 2014. Maybe it was a hole in the glove, washed too many times with bleach and left to dry in the harsh sun. Maybe it was an opening in his protective gear, put on too quickly by overworked hands rushing to help another patient. Maybe it was when his wife took ill, and, despite all his training and experience, it was too much not to touch her as the fever raged and the fragile walls of her capillaries disintegrated. Whatever the cause, he died. He could have left, he could have refused to go to work, he could have kept himself out of harm’s way and let his patients die, but these thoughts never occurred to him. His commitment to his community and his compassion for his patients would have never let him quit.
A year later, I stood over Eric’s grave, still angry. Still grieving. Still raging at the absolute injustice of it all. I looked at the small patch of earth that used to be my friend and promised to preserve his memory. As much as I can, I say his name. As often as I can, I tell his story.
Now, I’m studying medicine, and whenever I feel tired, I think of Eric. Whenever clinicians take time to teach me and give me advice, I hear Eric in their words. When a patient is difficult or frustrating, I see Eric take their hands and talk to them, and I remember what true, compassionate health care looks like, and I try to live up to that standard.