Please Stop Calling Me an 'Ebola Hero'
The media just love to bestow titles. So-and-so is a legend, a genius, a star. For those of us who volunteered during the West Africa Ebola outbreak, it was “Ebola hero.” I am not a hero. In fact, I’m just an average person, avoiding the limelight.
If you met me, I probably wouldn’t mention I’ve worked with Ebola. Or if I did, you’d get the briefest of details. I’ll say I don’t like to blow my own trumpet, but I’m also hiding a darker secret: I am full of guilt. Guilt that so many people died, yet I am safe and well. I did all I could, yet I wish I could have done more to ease their suffering.
I see the patients in my dreams and in my waking moments. I see the pregnant woman and hear the baby’s cry. Their precious blood samples in my hands, their treatment dependent on my skill. Such a responsibility, yet I am honored to be part of their journey.
The memories haunt me still. Lies encircle my mind, telling me anything I do now is not as important as the work I did with Ebola, that unless I do something equally important, it is worth nothing. That I am worth nothing.
I am on constant alert, even now, aware of the first symptoms of Ebola even though I live in a safe place. A mind not at rest, longing to ease the guilt. This led to depression shortly after returning from West Africa, clinging to me like a dark cloud. All around me, everything had lost some of its meaning and I had less enjoyment in life. It was hard to smile with those lingering memories, as well as the ever-present feeling I didn’t belong.
Part of me stayed behind in West Africa, and part of West Africa came back with me. Reintegrating into normal life was difficult because the culture is so different. I felt out of place, as though I could not talk to anybody, and so I didn’t. People have their own lives to worry about, so why would they have any interest in what I had seen and done? What was so special about my story anyway that I should share it?
Prior to leaving for West Africa, the charity looking after me provided everyone with all the information and help we needed in case we struggled in any way during and after our time volunteering. Their help and attention to detail was excellent, and they did all they could to ensure our physical and mental health. I knew who to contact should I struggle to readjust to life back home.
However, to quote the film “To Write Love on Her Arms,” “Secrets make you sick.” The help I needed was there, readily available to me, yet I did not take it. I felt my story wasn’t important enough, that my symptoms were nothing like the post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by some soldiers in the military, and therefore I felt ashamed to speak up.
The longer I buried my feelings, the more difficult it was to be the cheerful, optimistic person I once was. I began to self-harm again, a year after quitting, to try to release all the pent-up emotions that were like a maelstrom inside me; I had no peace.
Self-harm didn’t help. Instead, it scarred me physically, and I was left in a worse place emotionally. For me to accept I needed help, it took a colleague to notice my outlook on life was apathetic, for I no longer had any goals to work towards. What was the point anyway?
Eventually I sought help from a professional counselor, who with a lot of patience managed to break down the strong wall I had built around me. I also had help from a couple of friends who mentored me. They reminded me of the positive experiences of working in West Africa, such as seeing Ebola survivors be discharged as a result of my team’s work.
Over time, I learned to not be so hard on myself. Thinking back, what else could I possibly have done to make a difference? When you do all you can, what else can be done?
Occasionally the negative memories return, unbidden, and haunt me once more. Sometimes it is strong, other times not so much. But with the help of God and friends who are always there for me, I can beat this.
If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
Photo above by Jennifer Brooks: An observation unit for suspected Ebola patients awaiting test results, Lungi Government Hospital, Lungi, Sierra Leone. For more information on Ebola and what CDC is doing, please visit: www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/