BANJUL, THE GAMBIA -- With Ebola deaths reported at 84 to the south 200 miles and two possible cases in the national hospital here, Lighthouse Medical Missions team members shut down clinics prematurely on Wednesday and evaluated evacuation.
Of the 45 team members, about 25 exercised their option to fly out at 3:00 a.m. Thursday. They were the Ventura contingent of the team, many of whom were minors, under the lead of Dr. Kevin White, a pediatrician from that city. Concern was less about getting infected than over the possibility of Brussels closing to passengers from The Gambia.
But Santa Monica contingent opted to NOT buy emergency tickets and stay with the original travel itinerary, surmising fears to be overrated. Dr. Robert Hamilton -- no stranger to danger after leading Lighthouse teams to Africa since 1998 -- downplayed risk.
"I'm concerned about the tsunami of worry," said the Santa Monica pediatrician, recommending only moderate precautions. Since 25 percent of new cases are among health care workers, the clinics were halted.
Ebola, popularized by the movie "Contagion," is the deadliest virus known to man. It resurfaced days before Lighthouse Medical Missions came to Africa, far enough away to NOT cancel the trip. While we were here, it spread to Conakry, the first time in 50 years of tracking to hit an urban center.
"This type of outbreak is very unusual," said team member Dr. Lawrence Czer, a cardiologist and resident of Santa Monica. "To have a large number of people with Ebola is unheard of."
This strain has a 90% mortality rate, according to media reports. Two suspected cases in The Gambia hospital were Guineans mother and son who had been in a hospital where Ebola was treated just before coming to The Gambia. A U.S. embassy official said they didn't appear to be Ebola since the patients were responding well to treatment. Official word would come later Thursday.
In all, medical practitioners attended to 1,300 patients, dispensing thousands of dollars of medicine free to people, in both The Gambia and Guinea Bissau.
On Wednesday, The Gambia team all wore masks and surgical gloves as they attended to the 100 people already inside the compound where the clinic when we arrived to pack up in Tanji, a fishing village outside of Banjul where we staged the clinic. Meanwhile, the 25-member Guinea Bissau team drove back to Banjul because of speculation that borders might close and trap them.
"The risk of exposure for us at this point is very, very low," Dr. Czer told the group. "However, we had to be prepared to leave because we don't know the extent of this epidemic."
On Thursday morning, those of us who stayed behind avoided conglomerations of people but didn't hole up in the beachside convent/ retreat center where we are staying. We visited the Brussels Airline office and a hotel before talking to U.S. Embassy officials, who also allayed worries.
Medical missionary veterans exchanged light-hearted stories about past adventures that caused mirth, but at the time would have caused great concern. Dr. Hamilton shared the story about how was transporting medicines upriver in Sierra Leone in a boat that nearly sunk.
Dr. Czer recalled when his nurse was chased by "secret societies." She had stepped off the bus to snap a photo of a witch doctor with a headdress leading a procession of an estimated 100 people. Enraged, the leader shouted something in African language, and all the followers ran after the nurse brandishing walking sticks as clubs. Dr. Czer and others ran after them screaming to rescue the nurse, he said.
"By the grace of God," no one was hurt, he said. They held the clinic that week without further incident.
Plans were being made to tour The Gambia River and see sites where slaves were once sold and shipped to America. Dinner was planned for a local restaurant.
Thus cut short became the dream of many of us, first-timers on an Africa medical mission. Some had dreamed since childhood, and we're now seeing their visions of service in humanitarian aid short-lived.
While on previous missions, the hearty adventurers of Lighthouse Medical Missions have always carried to completion their labors through whatever adversities or opposition they faced. This time, they leave unfinished business. By no means do they intend to stop coming to Africa on future missions.
If you would like to donate to the humanitarian aid of the medical missions, visit
www.lighthousemedicalmissions.com . "We're leaving, but we're coming back," Dr. Czer said.
This is entry #8 of my chronicles of an African medical mission. To read
#9, go here.
Or to start with entry
#1, go here.