Dr Adaora Okoli was once all but dead, and now she is considered a ‘hero in the field’ by Bill Gates, who gave her the distinction last Thursday for not only being one of the few survivors of the Ebola virus, but for dedicating her life to fighting it.
When she recovered from Ebola in 2014 and was able at last to leave the isolation ward in Lagos, Nigeria, Dr Okoli felt reborn with a purpose.
Dr Okoli was infected while treating one of the first Nigerian cases of the deadly virus, which killed more than 11,000 people, and she has since moved to New Orleans, Louisiana to study epidemiology at Tulane University.
She made headlines when her story emerged in 2014 and Gates said of her on his blog: ‘Her courage and her optimism are inspiring.’
When she graduates in May, Dr Okoli, now 31, plans to continue her research in infectious diseases and eventually return to Nigeria to educate her fellow doctors on how to more effectively treat and understand diseases as public health issue.
The stress that Dr Okoli underwent the week of July 20 2014 would be enough to make anyone feel ill.
That’s just what she thought her sore throat and body aches were, at first: stress.
A diplomat from Liberia, where the Ebola outbreak had begun six months earlier, came into Dr Okoli’s hospital, First Consultants Medical Centre, with symptoms that made her colleagues think he might have malaria.
Dr Okoli was on call, and came to the diplomat’s room when he asked for a doctor.
He had had to make several trips to the bathroom with diarrhea, so she asked a nurse, who was eight weeks pregnant, to help him to the bathroom and temporarily remove the IV.
When the nurse tried to replace the IV, the patient ‘got very upset and yanked the IV from his hand. The nurse had blood splashing all over her and the sheets,’ Dr Okoli says.
She was immediately concerned, and became more so when the man’s lab results revealed liver abnormalities.
‘That’s one of the organs that Ebola attacks, and I told the nurses I suspected he might be a case of Ebola,’ and she instructed the nurse to be particularly careful to wash her hands and wear gloves, Dr Okoli says.
‘We didn’t have personal protective equipment that was adequate, we just had what we had, and had to do our best and use that.’
Proper protective gear covers the clothing, skin and any mucous membranes, such as the eyes. Dr Okoli and her team had only masks and rubber gloves.
It took three days for the World Health Organization to confirm the that the diplomat had ebola, and during that time he was agitated, threatening to leave, which would have put the entire town of Lagos at risk, but Dr Okoli and her colleagues kept him in place, and stayed to treat him.
Three days later, the diplomat was dead, and the hospital was shut down.
That’s when Dr Okoli started to feel sick with a sore throat, but assumed it was stress and treated herself with antibiotics.
At home, her family continued to assure her she couldn’t have Ebola, even as Dr Okoli became more convinced.
‘I isolated myself, and kept them at arms length,’ and called the newly-established local health line to send someone to test her for the disease.
Two days later, she got a strange call back.
‘He was stumbling, and he said “we’re sorry, there was a mix up, we have to take you to the hospital to take a sample,” Dr Okoli recalls.
Ever the professional, she remained calm even when the health official came to her house and loaded her into an ambulance.
She wasn’t taken to First Consultants, but five hours away to another hospital, and when the ambulance doors opened again, everything had changed.
‘I’m sorry, your test was positive, you have Ebola,’ a health official told her.
‘I called my mother, told her to lock my bedroom door from the outside, and that she shouldn’t worry, I don’t know how, but I’m going to survive,’ Dr Okoli says.
She was sealed into an isolation ward with five other female patients.
There is no known cure for Ebola, and in Nigeria, no access to ZMapp, the experimental treatment.
‘It’s just a matter of let’s see if your immune system can fight this. If it can, “yay,” if it can’t, we’re sorry, but at least you didn’t infect anyone else,’ says Dr Okoli.
At 28 years old, she found herself sitting in the isolation ward, in the bed next to the pregnant nurse who had had the diplomat’s blood spattered all over her.
‘But I said “I know this is not the end for me,” Dr Okoli says.
She remembered opening the Bible at random three years prior, when her eyes fell on a verse: Jeremiah 29:11.
‘”For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’
The moment stuck with her, and Dr Okoli meant to see that promise kept. ‘I thought to God, “this is what you told me,” so when I was sitting in the isolation ward in August 2014, I had to remind God of what he said, that he is not a liar and he has plans for me.’
So she fought.
Dr Okoli used her clinical skills and treated herself as her own patient. She researched Ebola obsessively until she found a deadly symptom she could treat: dehydration.
‘If you can stock up on fluids, you might have a chance before multi-system shut down….because you’re fighting against a virus that is replicating every single second,’ she says.
Dr Okoli carefully monitored her own body – changes in her urine color and the consistency of her nearly constant diarrhea – treating herself with high doses of water.
Finally, she began to get her appetite back, and not just for anything, but for bananas.
‘The problem with persistent diarrhea is that you lose a lot of potassium and risk going to cardiac failure, which can lead to death,’ she explains.
By the nurse’s bed next to Dr Okoli’s, ‘I saw that her fiance had brought her all these bananas and she wasn’t eating them, but I had this urge to eat all the bananas.
‘I don’t know if it was divine or coincidence, but i happened to have bananas when I need them most,’ she says.
Dr Okoli got stronger and started helping tend to and counsel the other disheartened patients on the ward.
Fourteen days later, her blood was ebola-free.
Leaving the isolation ward bordered on a religious, ritualistic experience, Dr Okoli says.
She bathed in chlorine and changed into fresh, uncontaminated clothes her parents had brought her, carefully making sure they didn’t touch the ground.
As she approached the door, ‘I was given a pair of scissors and cut the red tape that was separating the isolation ward from the rest of the world.’
When she cut that tape, ‘I felt like I’d been reborn, and something had died in that ward when I was there.
‘The new me was someone that had decided not to be rebuked, to be a doctor, to help people.’
After watching one poorly-equipped doctor try to take care of her entire ward with two visits a day, and nearly dying herself, Dr Okoli left behind her dreams of endocrinology and dedicated herself to a new mission: treating infectious diseases as a public health issue.
‘Doctors need to know how to handle Ebola. It should arise not just out of someone who knows infectious disease but a public health concern.
‘Ebola thrives in impoverished areas, in countries suffering in the aftermath of war and bad governments…it’s not just about treating patients,’ she says.
Dr Okoli applied – and was accepted to – a master’s program at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Diseases in New Orleans.
She has since excelled in her studies there, given birth to a daughter, Valerie, now two, and will graduate in May.
Her plan is to spend a year conducting research on the pattern of epidemics, not just Ebola, before returning to Nigeria to help treat and educate others, even in the face of the threat of contracting another life-threatening disease.
‘My uncle says I’m crazy,’ Dr Okoli told Daily Mail Online, but she just shrugs that off.
‘I have fear, but… If I had died in that isolation ward, I wouldn’t even have the opportunity to talk about or consider infectious disease, so I make the most of whatever time I have, to affect path for others.
‘Everyone has a story…something that resonates with them, and whatever you have in your hand…use that to possibly make change that affects more people positively,’ Dr Okoli says.
Daily Mail Online