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Ebola survivors leave Red Cross treatment centre in Sierra Leone

An 11-year-old girl is one of the first patients to leave a new Red Cross treatment centre free of Ebola.

Thursday October 2, 2014

Osman and Kalie with staff at the Ebola treatment centre in Kenema.

Osman Sesay was the second confirmed Ebola patient to arrive at the newly opened treatment centre operated by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Kenema, Sierra Leone.

When he crossed the threshold of the centre, he was listless and lethargic, with the glazed look of someone infected with the deadly disease. Over the course of two weeks, Osman watched 11 fellow patients being taken for burial in the newly dug cemetery, while he continued to grow stronger. He interacted with staff more, he moved more, he began asking for more food.

Now, after two blood negative tests, Osman is free to leave. He is the first person at the IFRC centre to have survived Ebola. "I don't know why I survived when others didn't," he said. "But I am very happy to be going home."

The 37-year-old junk trader doesn't know how he became infected. Nor does he remember arriving at the centre, after a five hour drive from his home in Freetown. What he does remember is being approached by Red Cross staff, wearing their rather imposing-looking protective gear.

Finding pleasure in everyday tasks

"I was scared," Osman said. "But they treated me well. They talked to me, they gave me medicine, they gave me food. They looked after me and helped me get better."

After his first shave in weeks, staff gathered around to celebrate his discharge, and were able - for the first time - to greet him without having to wear their protective equipment, able to touch and shake his hand. He is now immune to the highly contagious Zaire strain of Ebola, although researchers do not agree on just how long immunity will last. As Osman prepared to hop into the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society car for home, he said he hopes to return to the centre in the near future, as a staff member. "I do hope I can come back. They helped me and I would like to help others who are suffering from this bad disease," he said.

The smile of a young Ebola survivor

Osman is leaving alongside Kalie*, a young girl whom he got to know while at the centre.

The smile on Kalie's face speaks volumes. She will soon be reunited with her mother and eight brothers and sisters. Two weeks ago, she to came into the treatment centre, her body listless with the Ebola virus disease. But the disease was identified early, and treatment started as quickly as possible, and Kalie's tiny, wiry frame was able to fight back.

"She was very flat when she first arrived," said Lauralee Morris, chief medical officer from the Canadian Red Cross Society. "She was unresponsive and did not have any interest in what was going on around her. It has been a wonderful experience to watch her transform into a healthy young girl."

As the Ebola virus was slowly driven from the 11-year-old, she began connecting with other patients, forming bonds with the healthier ones, very rarely leaving their side. She would break into fits of giggles when tickled by the Red Cross staff, and danced with others to Michael Jackson. It didn't matter that they were separated by two sets of the orange mesh fence that divides the high risk zone from the low risk zone.

Kalie gave one last wave to the other patients before walking away from the centre for the final time. In the local Krio language she was asked: "How de body?"

"Fine," she replied, and for the first time in weeks, she meant it.

Katherine Mueller, IFRC

First published on IFRC website.

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*Child's name changed to protect her identity.