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A Doctor On Why He Volunteered To Fight Ebola In Liberia


When the Ebola epidemic in West Africa was at its raging horrific peak, the image that played out over and over on our TV screens was doctors wearing spacesuits moving among dying Africans. Steven Hatch was one of those doctors, and he's written about the experience in a new book called "Inferno: A Doctor's Ebola Story." Steven Hatch has come into our studios at WGBH in Boston to share some of the story behind the story. And Dr. Hatch, welcome.

STEVEN HATCH: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: I want to get to your reasons for volunteering to go to Liberia and treat Ebola patients. But start with that suit because it was such a vivid image, and I'm curious what it was like from inside the suit, that experience of being a doctor trying to treat a patient and how challenging that must be when you're wearing triple latex gloves and what looks like a spacesuit.

HATCH: Yeah, it's kind of interesting in that it is the mirror image of the suit that the doctor wears in the United States, which is a white coat. That's our uniform that identifies us. And the suit that we had to wear in Liberia prevented us from contacting our patients. And all of the sensory input that we get as part of our jobs as physicians were hampered by having to wear this. So it was as immediate a reminder of the limitations that were imposed on us while we cared for our patients.

KELLY: OK, so you make the decision, you fly to Liberia, but you were not posted to the capital. You were posted to an Ebola treatment unit that was a bit of a hike. Describe where you were. Describe just what it looked like.

HATCH: I was assigned to Bong County, which is about 100 miles north of Monrovia. It is a regional capital named Gbarnga. Gbarnga is a population of about 30,000 people, and it was one of the staging points for many of the battles that had taken place in the Liberian Civil War.

KELLY: You write about one part of the compound in such vivid language that it has stuck with me. And I wonder if I could get you to read just this one paragraph, this one scene. And it's a scene from behind the treatment unit.

HATCH: (Reading) The clearing for the bodies is a little bigger than a basketball court. The gravesites are lined up in neat rows. The birds and insects assert themselves here, sometimes loudly. But even with this noise, there's a profound silence that hovers over it. I think it is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been on Earth. I also think it is one of the most horrifying. There are about five rows of graves with the earliest victims buried in the first row, moving outward in time as the outbreak continued. I start to know the people behind the names at the end of the first row, and I stopped knowing them midway through the fourth.

KELLY: And when you describe it as one of the most beautiful but also most terrible places you've ever seen, what do you mean by that?

HATCH: When you go there, the beauty of the African jungle is immediately apparent. And when you look up, you see the cascading vines, you see the birds flying around, and you think to yourself, this is just a very profound place. And then you look down on the ground, and you see the mounds where all of the bodies are buried. And with that silence comes a horror of what the outbreak really meant in this community.

KELLY: I want to ask you about one of the many patients you treated while there. You write about treating a 6-year-old girl who tested positive for Ebola. Her mother did not. And it fell to you to escort her away from her mother. What happened?

HATCH: She was part of a small cohort of patients that we had to deal with where someone in the family would be positive and someone would be negative. And once a person is negative, we had them leave the unit. She was a 6-year-old girl, and she had contracted the virus, but her mother had not. And both the child and her mother were terrified about what may lay ahead for both of them.

KELLY: And the little girl did not survive.

HATCH: She did not. She died four days after that move, and her mother was unable to go to the burial. And I think, in some ways, it encapsulates just how awful things could be during this outbreak and the kind of personal tragedies that people had to live through.

KELLY: You're back now at your hospital in Massachusetts. Do you find yourself treating patients, doing your job in a different way as a result of the work that you did in Liberia?

HATCH: I think it's made me sensitive to the limitations that are imposed on us and...

KELLY: Explain that. What limitations?

HATCH: Just making sure that you've made a connection with your patient. One of the things that we had to do for our patients in Liberia, in addition to just witnessing their illness and doing what doctors do around the world, which is try to use medicines to blunt the worst effects of an illness, is also to try to help manage their own anxieties and their fears. I would like to think that I had been aware of it before, but I think I understood the principle in a new way.

KELLY: Dr. Steven Hatch. His new book is "Inferno: A Doctor's Ebola Story." Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

HATCH: Thank you for having me.


KELLY: Tomorrow on Morning Edition, we'll hear how American builders are rushing to get in on the construction of President Trump's promised U.S.-Mexico border wall.