We soon pulled off the road and parked next to a small porch, where an anemic light guarded a few empty tables. As we sat down, our driver greeted the waitress. How dee body? he said in a singsong timbre. Dee body fine, the woman replied with a welcoming smile. I tried to follow the pairs conversation in Krio, Sierra Leones official language, but could only identify a few words of the English-based dialect that freed slaves had brought back to Africa.
Mikhail quickly ordered us a round of beers. When the waitress returned, she efficiently flipped off their caps, rubbed the open bottle tops with a used rag, and handed them to us. My large escort eyed his change in Leones, unabashedly confirming the absence of fake bills, before holding his beer up to the driver and me. To peace and health, he said. The waitress encouraged us with a big pearl-white grin as we all three took a swig.
The driver continued to chat up the waitress, leaving Mikhail and me to ourselves. The burly Macedonian turned to stare openly at me for a few moments. So, he finally blurted out, youre the Lassa guy? I was clearly a lot younger than he had expected.
I paused for a few seconds before answering. Yeah, I finally grunted, doing my best to imitate my guides gruff demeanor. Although it was hard to feign comfort with my brand-new title, I didnt want Mikhail to know how lacking I was in field experience. I had finished three years of medical school and a year of public heath, in addition to studying extensively before leaving. That would be enough, I silently hoped, to handle whatever challenges lay ahead.
A doctor died of that here last year, Mikhail continued with a knowing shake of his head, as if to say he was new to the country, but was aware of that much already.
I was also well acquainted with the story of the fated Freetown physician. He had died from Lassa Fever, a Viral Hemorrhagic Fever (VHF) limited to West Africa. His horrific demise was just one of the many details I had conveniently failed to mention to those close to me, before leaving for my trip. My dad and brother had told me I was crazy, while my mom had sighed deeply her heart torn between needing to protect me and not wanting to stand between me and something I was passionate about. Worry already clearly evident in their voices, I had held my tongue. There was no need to burden my loved ones any more than I had already.
From the moment I had first heard about the dreaded Lassa virus, during my second year of medical school, in a sterile California classroom that now felt very far away, I had been drawn to the illness. The disease is one of four famed VHFs (including Ebola, Marburg, and Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever) that share an terrifying tendency to spread from person-to-person, as well as a gruesome clinical picture of massive bleeding frequently leading to death.
Although there are countless T.V. shows and movies focused on the dramatic aspects of medicine, the extended study needed to enter the field is almost exactly the opposite. Medical school is hour after hour of monotonous rote learning, memorizing a never-ending series of facts that can seem completely disconnected from caring for actual human beings.
Years of exams merge together, until you almost forget why you choose to go into medicine in the first place. Surrounded by highly competitive people it is easy to become distracted by which specialties are the most prestigious, which pay the most money. During that time, Lassa became a symbol to me of something different, of foreign adventure and unquestionable need.
I knew that my trip was risky, some had told me even foolish, but the mix of danger and adventure surrounding the mysterious virus compelled me towards it. I had studied for years to swear an oath to care for the sick. In my eyes, confronting Lassa seemed to be the ultimate test of such moral fortitude. It meant that I had not yet lost a few threads of idealism, to which I so desperately clutched throughout my training.
Excerpted from The Lassa Ward by Dr. Ross Donaldson. Copyright © 2009 by Dr. Ross Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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