August 26, 2015

Boston Physician Starts Campaign for Ebola Health Workers

Tommy Trenchard, Reuters
Medical staff put on protective gear in Kenema Government Hospital before taking a sample from a suspected Ebola patient.
Nahid Bhadelia first went to Sierra Leone last year to work for two weeks on a team of health-care workers treating Ebola-infected patients at the Kenema Government Hospital’s Ebola treatment center.

In addition to a hospital inundated with suffering patients, the infectious-disease physician from Boston Medical Center found tumbledown facilities without basic medical supplies, tools, or equipment and a team of devoted — but struggling — local health-care workers.

Not only were they fighting to care for the sick in substandard conditions, some were contracting and dying from the disease themselves. They labored for abysmally low wages, if they got anything at all; some had not seen a paycheck in six months.

"They are trying to make ends meet at all times, and they were going to work every day risking their lives and not getting paid for it," says Dr. Bhadelia.

So in June, she set up a crowdfunding campaign through the site GoFundMe to raise money for the Sierra Leone health-care workers and draw attention to their plight.

The campaign shares the workers’ stories and shows how they are using the money people donate, some of which goes to the families of Ebola workers who have died from the disease.

Boston Globe via Getty Images
Dr. Nahid Bhadelia has raised about $13,000 of her $50,000 goal but says the campaign won’t come close to fixing larger problems.
 Dr. Bhadelia has raised about $13,000 of her $50,000 goal, and because Sierra Leone has a mostly cash-only economy, she must distribute the money on her trips there.

In July she gave out about $4,300 to 10 of the health-care workers and hopes to give out more when she travels to Kenema in September.

Giving Some Relief

The reasons these health-care workers are not getting paid are complicated and partly related to Sierra Leone’s impoverished health system. At the same time, donations from the U.S. and the Britain are allocated to the Nations, nonprofits, and government agencies, and very little of the money, regardless of where it originates, is earmarked for front-line local medical workers.

Dr. Bhadelia says her campaign won’t come close to fixing those larger problems, but she hopes to help alleviate her Kenema colleagues’ struggles.

"All this was meant to do was to help my friends get some relief until that money comes through," she says. "We’re safer because of their efforts."

Those efforts may have contributed to one recent positive development in the country. On Monday, Sierra Leone’s last Ebola patient was released from the hospital. The World Health Organization won’t declare Sierra Leone free from the Ebola virus until the country has gone 42 consecutive days with no sign of the virus. Dr. Bhadelia said in an email to The Chronicle that she is cautiously optimistic about the improving situation in Sierra Leone, but the news doesn’t change the need to raise money for the workers she is trying to help.

"The money is to honor the work these health-care workers did during the epidemic as their salaries are delayed or didn’t come through," she wrote. "It’s also a recognition that health-care workers are an essential part of continuing the vigilance for new cases on the ground."

Send an e-mail to Maria Di Mento.