Ebola survivors are among the lucky few who beat the odds in the ongoing struggle against this deadly plague, but returning home to face the stigma of fear from friends and neighbors adds the pain of loneliness to the challenging road that lies ahead of them. Fear and misconception about any lingering contagion keeps many at a distance, leaving recovered patients feeling that their cure is a mixed blessing. While grateful for their restored health, their stories lend weight to the medical community’s reassurances that the returning victims pose no health risk to the people around them and pleas for friendship and compassion as they celebrate their recovery.
After being convinced that the disease is a certain death sentence that will take them away from their loved ones forever, sufferers celebrate their recovery, thankful to be alive. Nonetheless, Gloria Tumwijuke, a midwife from Uganda found that, like many others, her 2012 bout with Ebola left consequences in its wake. She lost her hair and is more forgetful now.
When Dr. Melvin Korkor of Phebe Hospital returned to campus at Cuttington University in Liberia, students expressed fear of being near him or even shaking his hand. Others have been shunned and find themselves spending tearful hours in isolation as family, friends and neighbors withdraw from personal contact and employers are hesitant to allow them to return to work.
A Guinea medical student, Kadiatou Fanta found her life irrevocably altered upon her return, as her boyfriend refused her calls and she was denied access to her classes, on top of social isolation, even from her own family. She laments the fear of contamination that has taken root in her life and those of other overcomers, making survival as much a miracle as a curse.
CBS reports that medical experts attest to Ebola plague survivors’ ability to return home to their families, communities and accustomed activities without risking public health and safety or incurring stigma. However, the loneliness of fear-based shunning is only part of the challenge the patients face after recovery. NYU Langone Medical Center’s Dr. Amar Safdar explains that chronic inflammation of the joints and eyes can result from an Ebola survivor’s immune system response. They have a greater risk of arthralgia, a painful joint and bone condition similar to arthritis.
In addition, many of the recovered victims experience irritation and inflammation in the eyes, causing increased tearing and sensitivity and sometimes, blindness. The lingering symptoms give pause to people close to the survivors, who fear for their own health.
Nonetheless, the World Health Organization (WHO) contends that it is safe for returning survivors of the Ebola plague to interact normally in their home community, denying the necessity of stigmatizing isolation. While recommending precautions in regards to bodily fluids of the former patients, they affirm that the cured are not contagious. Contrary to fears of catching the virus through simple touch or airborne transmission, Ebola spreads through contact with bodily fluids, much the same as HIV.
Poor understanding of how infectious viruses spread and the peculiar appearance of the protective gear that healthcare workers must wear when treating patients may add to misguided perceptions of danger even when the infection has passed. Patience Clarke, a nurse at Phebe Hospital encourages medical personnel to set the example by making frequent physical contact by publicly shaking hands with survivors as they leave isolation in order to demonstrate that they have no need to fear from proximity to the patients at that point.
The journey to full physical and mental normalcy for survivors returning to the familiarity of home after a grueling bout with the stigmatizing plague is long and trying . However, a large dose of compassion and celebration of the miracle of recovery is more in order than fear to help them re-establish community bonds as their bodies heal from the aftermath of the devastating Ebola disease.
by Tamara Christine Van Hooser