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Sierra Leone Colleagues Mourn Dr. Salia, Who Succumbed To Ebola


Even before Ebola began its deadly spread, Sierra Leone was desperately short of doctors. That's true generally in sub-Saharan Africa. And in Sierra Leone, 136 physicians serve 6 million people, which makes it all the more tragic that a sixth doctor has just died of Ebola. Martin Salia was a general surgeon. He passed away at University of Nebraska's Medical Center in Omaha shortly after arriving in a medevac plane. NPR's Nurith Aizenman was with Dr. Salia's colleagues back in Sierra Leone's capital when word of his death began to spread.


NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: It's morning at the Hastings Ebola Treatment Center. The lead clinician, Dr. Komba Songu-Mbriwa, walks past workers scooping water to make disinfectant solution. His phone is starting to blow up with news of his friend, Dr. Salia.

KOMBA SONGU-MBRIWA: Messages going around on the WhatsApp that he's ill. In fact, this morning, some people are saying they understand he's dead. I don't know. But I don't know the situation.

AIZENMAN: The possibility fills him with dread. Songu-Mbriwa has seen dozens of patients at this center die.

SONGU-MBRIWA: Working in the Ebola Treatment Center you have to really keep your emotions tight. Otherwise, you will lose God.

AIZENMAN: Just over a week ago when Dr. Salia was admitted to this center with Ebola, Songu-Mbriwa lost his composure.

SONGU-MBRIWA: I saw him, you know, in a bad state. I shed tears. I was broken down. I had to leave to come out.

AIZENMAN: Songu-Mbriwa is finding it hard to believe that Dr. Salia might've died. He points to the ward where Salia was staying and says he walked from there over to the ambulance that took him to the plane. He climbed in unaided.

But the team that treated Dr. Salia in Omaha reports that he drastically deteriorated on the flight over. By early afternoon, it's confirmed. Dr. Salia is dead.


AIZENMAN: Not far from the Ebola treatment unit at a hospital where Salia practiced, a workman touches up a wall with brown paint. There aren't a lot of other people around. Kissy United Methodist Hospital suspended operations for 21 days as soon as officials learned of Dr. Salia's infection. But the acting administrator, Leonard Gbloh, says earlier in the day a throng of staffers and former patients gathered at the gate to ask if the rumors of Salia's death were true.

LEONARD GBLOH: People were crying. People were wailing. People were shouting. Some of the few staff came around rolling on the ground. We are up to now in a state of shock. We are traumatized.

AIZENMAN: Gbloh worries about the impact Dr. Salia's passing will have on the community. Salia was the only full-time doctor here - and the only one qualified to perform surgery - often operating on six or seven patients a day.

GBLOH: People are really suffering. This is the only hospital in this community rendering valuable service to members of this community.

AIZENMAN: And as they disinfect and prepare to re-open with scaled-back services, Gbloh says there's one issue he'd particularly like to get to the bottom of. Given that Dr. Salia wasn't working directly with Ebola patients, how did he get infected?

GBLOH: That is the $100 million question that is plaguing our minds right now.

AIZENMAN: How did he get it and what do they have to do to keep this from happening again? Nurith Aizenman, NPR News, Freetown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.