Called to Fight Ebola: U.S. physician-deacon has gone to Liberia to help

A Liberian nurse disinfects a looted mattress taken from a school that was used as an Ebola isolation unit in Monrovia, Liberia, on Aug. 19. (CNS photo/Ahmed Jallanzo, EPA)

According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has infected at least 4,784 people, and claimed the lives of more than 2,400 as of Sept. 15. It is the worst Ebola epidemic in history.

WebMD reports that the disease, also known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever or Ebola virus, kills up to 90 percent of infected individuals.

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To help combat the deadly illness, Dr. Timothy Flanigan from the Diocese of Providence flew to Monrovia, Liberia, on his own accord to train and educate health care teams at Catholic hospitals and clinics.

"This is a terrible, infectious disease, which one can deal with safely with the appropriate training and supplies," said Flanigan, an infectious disease specialist at Miriam Hospital, as well as a deacon at Tiverton parishes St. Christopher and St. Theresa, in a telephone interview with the Rhode Island Catholic from Monrovia in early September.

"West Africa really did not have the proper equipment or the training to work with Ebola because it requires stringent infection control. But, infectious control is now being practiced in all health care settings and hospitals," he said.

For two months, Flanigan, who also a professor of medicine at Brown University's Alpert Medical School, will be living at a guesthouse in Monrovia next door to St. Joseph's Church.

Accompanied by Sister Barbara Brilliant, a Franciscan Missionary of Mary, who is dean of Mother Patern College of Health Sciences and a coordinator with the Archdiocese of Monrovia, he arrived Aug. 31 with at least 10 bags filled with items such as masks, gowns and gloves.

"There also are lots of individual and national aid organizations that are sending in tons of supplies," he said, acknowledging the Bernardine Sisters, the Salesian Missions and Catholic Relief Services. Local representatives with the Vatican-based Caritas Internationalis are providing help too.

"The church is present at the forefront of this epidemic," he said.

The Diocese of Providence has contributed to the effort as well, giving $2,500 to Tiverton Cares, a nonprofit organization assisting Flanigan by channeling required resources directly to the crisis area. In a letter to the organization accompanying the donation, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin noted: "We are proud that Dr. Flanigan, as a deacon of our church, is making this significant sacrifice to serve so many people who are suffering from the terrible scourge of Ebola."

The diocese, along with Flanigan's parishes, has been collecting supplies such as hand sanitizer, bleach, disinfectants, plastic spray bottles and more. Father Przemyslaw "Shemek" Lepak, pastor of St. Christopher and St. Theresa, is overwhelmed by parishioners' support.

"Every day, people are dropping off items," said Father Shemek, adding that collected goods will be sent out via the Salesian Missions.

Still, he was "shocked" when Flanigan told him he was interested in going to Liberia.

"The first thing I asked him was, 'Is it really what you want to do?'" Father Shemek said. "He said, 'It's not really about what I want. I feel God is calling me to go.' He dropped everything to serve the Lord. He is a remarkable person, and a man of great faith."

But Father Shemek's concern for Flanigan's safety is understandable. A number of clinics and hospitals in Liberia closed because they treated a few patients who had Ebola without the appropriate equipment. Health care workers became infected. Brother Patrick Nshamdze, lead administrator of St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital in Monrovia, became ill and perished after helping a woman who was treated, as did several doctors, nurses and other medical employees.

Despite the turmoil, Flanigan said there is hope. Hospital and clinic staffers are regrouping, and making sure they have the equipment to reopen safely.

"I'm confident that the epidemic will be tackled, though it may take some time," he said.

While Flanigan said Ebola is a "very serious and lethal disease," he's not worried about contracting it. Common sense precautions, medical knowledge and appropriate equipment are keeping him safe.

"What I'm doing is nothing terribly dramatic (or) courageous," he said. "I'm just helping out in a way that seems to make sense. There are many other health care workers who are on the front lines who are at much greater risk than I am."

While Ebola is contagious, "it's not like influenza," he said, as it is not airborne in its transmission. It is transmissible via direct human-to-human contact with infected blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids, as well as indirect contact with environments contaminated with these fluids.

"It's not like you can get Ebola from walking around the street," he said.

Aside from dealing with the outbreak, Flanigan is enriching his faith life through the experience. Family members and co-workers, as well as fellow medical professionals and the people of West Africa, continue to inspire and motivate him.

"They have a very deep faith here, and it really shines through in the middle of this challenge," he said. "After Mass, they have adoration. I'm participating in that and it's very wonderful and beautiful for me. It's a great help to participate and be part of their prayer, worship and sacrament. God's always present."

He also said his wife, Luba, herself a physician, was willing to "hold down the fort" on her own, which is no easy task, considering that they have five children. Though three are adults, one is in sixth grade, and the other is an eighth-grader.

His work colleagues are taking care of his work for two months and he praised his pastor and parish for all their support, calling it heartwarming.

Flanigan is writing about his experiences on his blog, TimothyPFlaniganMD.com, but also chronicling his faithfulness and affection for West Africans.

"There are so many Liberians who are working together in so many different ways," he said. "The people of Liberia have tremendous resiliency and have overcome many difficult challenges in the past. With help from international communities, they will be able to overcome this, as well."

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
David Pasinski
4 years ago
lLways a hard call when you have dependent children... may he be secure and safe and helpful... and eventually help all of the rest of us figure out how to do something also.

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