By Helena Humphrey, IFRC
In a remote village in southeast Guinea, a mother and her children are reunited with the husband and father they once feared they had lost to the Ebola virus disease. Around them, hundreds of villagers clap, sing and dance to celebrate Mamadou Noumou Diallo’s safe return to Kérouané. The 42 year old popular coffee bar owner is thinner than when they last saw him a month ago. He is also dressed in clothes they have never seen before, and his pockets are empty of his identification card, motorcycle licence, and Red Cross volunteer card, contaminated items disposed of at the Ebola treatment centre in Guéckédou. But his slow blinks and wide smile say it all: Mamadou is a man reborn.
“When Mamadou first came to us he was feverish, lethargic and had a stomach ache,” said Daniel, a doctor with Doctors Without Borders, who donned stifling layers of protective clothing every day to treat his patient. “Soon he stopped being able to eat and drink and slipped into a coma.” It was a coma from which few people thought he would wake. The Guéckédou treatment centre had yet to see an Ebola patient battle all stages of the disease, and still escape its deadly clutches.
Mamadou’s wife, meanwhile, was left to confront the painful prospect of losing her husband, and the practicalities of life as a widow. “My husband is the sole bread winner and provides for us all. Thankfully, we never went hungry during his time away as his volunteer friends brought us food,” said Aïssatou. Nevertheless, she and her two children were stigmatized by their fellow villagers. “They said we were sick and ran away when they saw us,” she explained, as she tightened the fabric binding their soundly sleeping baby to her back. “I would run into the house and cry, but then I would wipe away my tears and go about my business in the village. It was the only way I could make people understand that we did not have Ebola.”
Some 135 kilometres away, Aïssatou’s survival instincts were being matched by her husband’s, who finally opened his eyes after eight days and uttered a few, hope-renewing words. “I was passing by the treatment centre on my day off to check on some patients, including Mamadou,” Dr Daniel recalled, lighting up as he remembered the moment. “I knew something was going on as the nurses were dancing outside.” Can he pinpoint any specific treatment which may have helped his patient come around? “We never gave up on Mamadou, not for one second. We kept his temperature down, fed him glucose serum through a drip, changed his sheets twice a day, and continued his medical massage. I also prayed for him every morning before I left the house.”
Two negative Ebola tests, did not, however, signal the end of Mamadou’s treatment. Severe bed sores which had developed during his coma required routine medical attention at Guéckédou District Hospital. Finding staff to treat him there was a challenge. “Health care workers were still scared of catching the disease,” explained Germaine, a nurse and a volunteer with the Red Cross Society of Guinea who stepped up to the plate. “For years I had treated people who had tested positive for HIV. Many were badly stigmatized during that epidemic, and I couldn’t bear to see the same thing happen again with Ebola.”
Mamadou was cared for on a separate ward, with Germaine taking the day shifts and fellow Red Cross volunteer, Diallo, looking after him overnight. “It wasn’t just about his physical wellbeing,” Germaine said. “I wanted to make sure Mamadou felt well mentally, too.” Mission accomplished, judging by the ease with which Mamadou interacted with them. “My mum and dad,” he joked, performing a few token dance moves in front of his carers to prove that he was well enough to go home. “The day we told him he could return to his family was the day he stopped sleeping,” laughed Germaine, looking like a slightly weary mother. “I had to keep sending him back to bed.”
She accompanied him on the long journey home, along the testing roads where only a few trucks passed, emblazoned with the slogans “inshallah” or “thanks be to God” in a bid to keep them safe. Entering Kérouané, Mamadou’s fellow Red Cross volunteers, mounted on motorbikes, flanked the white four-by-four as it drove the final stretch. Families rushed out from under their straw porches, pointing at the car window when they spotted him, their lips making the shape of the three syllables which spell out his name. A name now well known in this village.
And it is here that Mamadou sits, his daughter by his side, at the centre of a ceremony held in his honour and attended by prefectural officials. I ask him what is next, now that he is home, and his reply is simple. “I will enjoy my wife’s good cooking and I will stay on the right path.” Where will that path lead him? “Never to another cigarette,” he jokes. “The one good thing about being in a coma is that it is easy to give up smoking.” He pauses for a second and becomes contemplative. “And I will still go about my work as a Red Cross volunteer,” he says. “I want to add at least another year of service to the decade I have already given.”