Monday, December 1, 2014

Ebola Preys on Loving Touches

I was sick yesterday...nauseous, weak, miserable. Not surprisingly, I got it from my daughter who was throwing up with a fever not long ago. How many times has that happened to you as a mom? In caring for your little one when her face is so pale and her body hot with fever, you reach out to comfort her. You offer a snuggle because your child cannot sleep and you feel her little body relax in your embrace. You know you're probably going to contract whatever she has if you kiss that brow, but you do it anyway because in that moment, a mother's touch eases the pain and discomfort quicker than than Motrin or Tylenol.

In my own self-pity party as I carefully sipped my re-hydrating Gatorade, I thought about stories I heard at the ONE Campaign's AYA Summit about the rapid spread of the Ebola epidemic. At first blush, it seems incredible that - with such a virulent disease on the loose - parents wouldn't take precautions to shield themselves from contamination. But through the eyes of a mother caring for a sick child and thinking about all the protective gear one needs to effectively protect against Ebola transmission, I see the problem clearly. If you are a parent in extreme poverty without access to any of this gear, wouldn't you at least reach out to embrace your dying child? I recalled this excerpt from the October 4, 2014 LA Times article "Ebola's Cultural Casualty: Hugs in Hands-On Liberia":
"...imagine trying not to touch your 2-year-old daughter when she is feverish, vomiting blood, and in pain. 
Precious Diggs, a 33-year-old contractor for a rubber company, had heard all the warnings from the legions of public health workers here in Liberia. She had seen the signs that dot the road from Harbel, where she works, to the capital, Monrovia, some 35 miles away: "Ebola is Here and Real!" they say. "Stop the Denial!" 
But when her toddler, Rebecca, started "toiling and vomiting," there was no way her mother was not going to pick her up.
"Na mind, baby," Ms. Diggs whispered in her baby's ear. "I beg you, na mind."
Precious' baby girl died only days later, but not before passing Ebola onto her mother. Weeks later, Precious herself was released from an Ebola treatment center. It would be difficult to describe her as "lucky," but this same story has played out in a worse way many times over with mothers passing on the disease to other children as well. Entire families have died because the parent-child bond with it's desire and need for touch is too great to heed the warnings to keep distance. The bond goes both ways. On NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, I heard the story of Ephraim Dunbar living outside Monrovia who contracted Ebola caring for his mother. He tried to keep his distance and wear gloves as he kept her hydrated with milk and tea, but there were times that he didn't wear gloves and in the end he contracted Ebola. But again, it's hard to describe him as "lucky" as he emerged from recovery to find out that he lost his entire family...mother, father, sisters, brothers. When asked why he didn't protect himself better, he replied in Liberian-English, "That mama, she the one who bore me." He just could not stop himself from providing loving care to her, including touching her.
A picture of the protective gear worn by Ebola care
providers from Dr. Fischer's messages from Guinea

Dr. William Fischer II from Doctor's Without Borders, working in an Ebola isolation facility in Guinea had these observations - shared on University of North Carolina's School of Medicine blog - about Ebola spreading through the traditions of burial and caregiving:
"The Ebola virus has been isolated from almost every body fluid including sweat, semen, blood, urine, oral secretions, and tears. As I mentioned yesterday, this virus has transformed tradition into transmission...Even before death, though, when people become ill, they are cared for by their loved ones and as any and all of us do. When was the last time you wore gloves, eye protection, and an N-95 when your son or daughter had diarrhea?" [an N-95 is a face mask]
Tears! Even wiping away a loved one's tears is deadly. Fischer's description about what it's like in the Ebola care wards illustrates why we can't bear to think of our children not having comfort parents long to provide:
"With Ebola you can't have a good death. You are isolated from your friends your family, your home. You are cared for by people whose primary focus is on stopping transmission from infected to susceptible and from patient to provider rather than comfort and cure. These people often die without the comfort of a human hand, without seeing someone's full face or even just knowing that a loved one is near."
How painful it is for mothers to bear the pain of resigning their children to that kind of fate. Many of them simply cannot. They often pay the price with their lives and the lives of the rest of the family.

The cruelty of Ebola is especially offensive to me as a mom. Its nature of spreading through contact associated with affection and caregiving strikes at the basic instinct of a parent to care for and touch a child with love in the moment of deepest suffering for both of them. The hopes and dreams of an entire family can be wiped out because someone loves too much not to reach out. 

So...what can we do to give suffering families and ourselves the gift of stopping this terrible disease?

As with every global health threat, it needs to be met with government support, non-government organizations in the field, and individual donors around the world. Here's what you can do TODAY:

Ebola can spread across the world over oceans, but so can our love and generosity. Like this video from the ONE Campaign urges us...Don't Wait. Do what you can to help today.