Malibu Doctor Returns From Ebola Assignment

Dr. Suzanne Donovan

Back home in Malibu after three weeks helping fight the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, Dr. Suzanne Donovan is in a reflective mood about the horrors she witnessed.

The unit saw more than 250 Ebola patients at Kenema General Hospital (KGH), where she was sent by the World Health Organization as part of a team of international volunteers.

“I was constantly inspired by both the national and international staff. The national staff was primarily young health workers who had lost most of their senior colleagues to Ebola, but they still kept showing up,” she said.

Dr. Donovan recalls one in particular. French, a 24-year-old nurse, is now in charge of the Ebola unit. 

“Despite not being paid for three weeks, French goes in to care for patients every day.”

Another hero is Bai, 42. 

“The role of Ebola survivors becoming healthcare workers is crucial in West Africa. I asked survivors who were willing and able to help us take care of other patients to stay on, because they are now immune. Bai is one of many who agreed to remain and help. He should be a doctor.”

When she first arrived at the hospital, there were 115 patients in a unit designed for 45.

There weren’t any national doctors at the hospital when Dr. Donovan arrived. There is a national shortage and the previous Ebola specialist had died. There’s a 40 percent mortality rate among adult Ebola patients at KGH, less than 10 percent in children.

Rather than waste valuable time waiting for test results, Dr. Donovan treated her patients for malaria and typhoid as well, because many presented those symptoms. She only had three lab tests available anyway: Ebola, Lassa Fever (that presents similar to Ebola) and Malaria. There was no test for typhoid.

“It was about saving as many lives as possible.”

Dr. Donovan has been symptom-free for the 21-day incubation period since her return. Usually symptoms develop within 10 to 14 days. Patients are only infectious once they start exhibiting symptoms. 

The most difficult aspect was witnessing the suffering of children, including one family in particular. 

“I entered one of our isolation tents that was crowded with patients from a remote village on the border. A baby was suckling at her dying mother’s breast. Her husband was dying on the ground next to her. He was holding the hand of his two-year-old son. The little boy was transfixed by me. Many of these patients from remote villages had never seen a Westerner, much less one dressed head to toe in a white protective suit. That must have been very scary for a young child.”

The parents died, but both those children survived. They are currently living in the hospital because they have no way to get back to their village. Many villages refuse to take Ebola survivors back, even the orphans. 

“I would see as many as six children from one family whose parents had died. The oldest kid would take care of the next youngest and so on. There was no crying. No whining. They just took care of each other. If there weren’t older siblings, other patients would step up and bottle-feed the babies. There were no bottles or formula for babies at the hospital when I arrived, so I went to the market and bought some.”

Currently working on Ebola preparation for L.A. County, where she’s a professor of clinical medicine at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and the Infectious Diseases Department at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, Dr. Donovan is flying to Nairobi this weekend at the invitation of the United Nations to speak about Ebola management to representatives from seven African countries.

Is she surprised that a patient suffering from Ebola symptoms was sent home with antibiotics from a hospital in Texas?

“I’m absolutely not surprised. I believe many American hospitals may not be prepared. It is difficult to stay 100 percent prepared for a rare event.”

She says there will definitely be suspected cases in Los Angeles, most likely from returning health workers, but that any outbreak in America will be contained. 

“There’s a tremendous amount of fear with health workers about taking care of Ebola patients,” said Dr. Donovan. “Yet soap and water is enough to kill this virus.”