As I had researched the trip, I learned that the Freetown physician, to whom Mikhail referred, had contracted Lassa from a patient returning from southern Sierra Leone, where the disease is endemic. The doctors and his patients horrific deaths, their bodily fluids pouring like flowing tap water from every orifice of their swollen corpses, had caused panicked patients and staff to flee the Freetown hospital.
Admittedly, Mikhails comment disarmed me for a moment. I didnt want to be reminded about the past physicians death. To me, at that time, medicine was supposed to be about tales of human triumph. I thrived on stories of success, tumors removed and lives saved, not failure.
I did my best to turn the topic to a more pleasant subject. So, what do you do for Merlin? I asked Mikhail.
Fix problems, the big man answered. Im in charge of logistics for Sierra Leone, moving stuff and people around the country.
You just got here? I said.
Yeah, last week. The post has been open for several months and they were pretty anxious to fill it, given the fighting in Liberia.
I was back in Kosovo, where my wife and twin girls are. I worked for Merlin there transporting medical supplies. But, the pay is higher here as an expat.
Its a move up then?
Yep. And Im already looking forward to buying my girls matching tricycles for their birthday, Mikhail answered, with a twinkle in his eyes.
Then, just as quickly, that glimmer disappeared. With a sharp grunt, the Macedonian slammed down his empty beer bottle. Time to go, he said, before herding the driver and me into the Range Rover. Assuming the wheel, my temporary guide proceeded to drive us a short distance, down the dark Freetown streets, to the Merlin guesthouse. As we approached, a growing glow from the building illuminated high walls broken bottles, cemented on top, glinted beneath roles of barbed wire.
A group of more than fifteen armed security guards soon unlocked the gates to let us enter the compound. The African men wore winter hats and thick jackets, along with threadbare pants and sandals. They think its cold at night, Mikhail whispered to me, perspiration clearly beaded on his own forehead.
As I greeted the near-battalion of guards, the nearest man cheerfully grabbed my arm and proceeded to teach me the Sierra Leone handshake. It began with the normal western grasp, then spun to clutch each others thumb, and then back to the ordinary grip. I bit back a smile, as each guard shook my hand the same way, the eldest with methodical dignity.
Mikhail eventually led me through the small, dark house to my room for the night. We should have a ride for you in a couple of days, he informed me. My final destination was Kenema, a southern town close to the border of warring Liberia. Merlin sponsored a ward there, the only one in the world solely dedicated to treating Lassa Fever.
I unpacked a few things and got into bed, but sleep eluded me. My comfortable mattress, where I had last laid my head in one of Londons towering high-rises, seemed a distant memory. More than space and time separated me from that place in between, sped a river of differences. Concealed under the cover of night, I clung tightly to my makeshift pillow and silently hoped that the rising torrent wouldnt sweep me away.
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