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Ebola Shuts Down The Oldest Hospital In Liberia

Wearing protective boots and gloves, a nurse sweeps the grounds of St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital. Overwhelmed by Ebola, the facility is now closed.
Ahmed Jallanzo
Wearing protective boots and gloves, a nurse sweeps the grounds of St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital. Overwhelmed by Ebola, the facility is now closed.

Hospitals in Africa are almost always teeming with people. In addition to patients waiting for care, friends and relatives are usually gathered on the hospital grounds.

But in the Liberian capital Monrovia, Ebola has silenced . It is completely shut.

Samuel Bowman, 72, is the medical director of the facility. When we met today outside his living quarters at the back of the hospital compound, Bowman had just heard on the radio that Father Miguel Pajares, a Spanish priest who worked at St. Joseph's and contracted Ebola, had died in a Madrid hospital, where he'd been evacuated.

Bowman says St. Joseph's wasn't even supposed to treat Ebola patients, but some ended up on its wards. "In the process, our hospital director became infected by one of the patients," Bowman says. "He has subsequently died. And those who had direct contact with him. They got infected."

Bowman counts off on his fingers those others infected: "A brother, two sisters, two of our staff nurses, the social worker. And a laboratory technician."

Liberia is ranked by the United Nations as the fifth poorest country on earth. And it's the poorest and smallest of the four countries that have so far been hit by the Ebola outbreak. Liberia has registered almost 600 cases and has the fastest growing rate of infection. Arguably it is the least prepared to deal with the deadly virus.

Bowman says the 140-bed hospital had only a handful of the full-body protective suits which have become the standard for treating Ebola patients. They had so few, Bowman says, that they had to use them "sparingly."

Founded in the 1960s, St. Joseph's touts itself as the oldest continuously operating hospital in the country. It stayed open throughout the bloody, brutal regimes and rebel wars of the 1990s.

But unable to contain Ebola, St. Joseph's shut its gates two weeks ago. This was right after the controversial case of Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-American businessman. Sawyer brought his sister to St. Joseph's for treatment and after she died of Ebola, he flew to Nigeria, sparking the outbreak there. He also died of the virus.

The original closure of St. Joseph's was supposed to last a month. Bowman says the idea was for the facility to regroup and the wards to be disinfected. I asked him if the hospital has been disinfected.

"Not yet," he says.

I asked him who is supposed to do that.

"Well," he says, "the Ministry of Health is supposed. We are still waiting."

While they wait, Bowman has had to turn away pregnant women, kids with broken arms, and patients with diarrhea and malaria whom the hospital used to treat routinely. Then there are his colleagues who are still being treated at the Ebola isolation unit of another Monrovia hospital.

"It's quite hard," he says. "It's hard for even those of us here doing nothing. Many of us are not used to sitting idle. It's distressing to see our workers being infected by the virus and to see that a number of them have died." Even this morning he was making arrangements for another funeral of another staff member who died yesterday.

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Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.