“Did anyone die last night?”
“Don’t know yet. Waiting for report from the late shift.”
“Did anyone do a morgue check?”
Every morning someone pops on their gumboots and walks down the long Red Cross Road to the morgue. The International Red Cross takes all bodies from our morgue and buries them safely, thus the dirt track inside the ETU from the gate to the morgue garnered its nickname. The clinician doesn’t enter the morgue, obviously — of all the hot zones in the ETU, this is by far the hottest — but through the red-zone fence they can see inside, and can count the number of body bags.
“Don’t think so. Lead from the corpse team should be over in a few.”
“Hey, did corpse lead report off?”
“Don’t think so. Why?”
“Cause I just checked the morgue.”
“What we got?”
A man in military fatigues roars up on a motorcycle, pops off the bike, and strides into triage with a folded paper in his hand. Lab results.
The triage clinician walks to the board of Confirmed patients, and we anxiously await their re-test results. A negative PCR means they have beaten Ebola, and can go home.
“Ward D, Bed 4. Negative.”
“Ward D, Bed 6. Negative.”
“Ward A, Bed 1. Negative.”
“Ward B, Bed 2. Negative.”
“Ward B, Bed 8. Negative.”
Under each of their names, in capital letters, the triage clinician writes, “SURVIVOR.”
I am working in the Confirmed Wards today. I’ve just completed med pass – paracetamol for fevers, antimalarial medications, prophylactic antibiotics, omeprazole for GI protection, metoclopromide to knock down the perpetual nausea and help the patient drink ORS.
My current patient is a 13-year-old boy. We are outside, and he is sitting by the water spigot, and I am scrubbing his head with soap while he scrubs the rest of himself, occasionally ducking his head under the faucet. His back is to the pathway that connects Suspect Ward to Confirmed.
Suddenly I see a group of five men in spacesuits turn onto the path and walk towards my ward. Their formation is singular, and dreadful. Two in front, two in back, their hands encased in four pairs of gloves, the outer pair being the nearly impermeable, elbow-length green ones. The fifth man behind them is spraying the ground with chlorine. Between them they carry a stretcher, and on the stretcher is a small white bag.
It is the corpse team, passing through Confirmed en route to the morgue.
As casually as I can, I place one hand on my patients head, and slowly scrub his now-clean hair yet again with the other, preventing him from turning to see this grim procession.
They turn the corner, and are gone from sight. I release his head, and he looks up at me with the mildly confused and annoyed look that only teenagers seem capable of. He saw nothing. I give him the thumbs up, and try to grin with my eyes.
A woman sitting on a chair in front of her ward saw everything. She catches my eye, and nods at me.
I am back at triage, drenched in sweat, drinking a litre and a half of ORS, and updating my patient notes on the Confirmed board.
A clinician assigned to the Suspect Wards, also drenched in sweat from her recent doffing, steps up to her board, and removes two names. She walks them over to the column marked “Deaths.”
“Christ Jesus, TWO more?”
She nods curtly. “The brother and sister in Suspect A.”
“The six- and eight-year olds? But they only arrived yesterday!”
“Yeah, well, they died curled up next to each other on the same mattress today,” she snaps. Then she turns abruptly on her heel, and rushes from the room.
I am back in Confirmed. I walk to the bed all the way in the back of Ward A, on the right. In my hand is a syringe with ten milligrams of IV diazepam.
When I am about six feet away from her, I realize that I will not need it.
“Oh, Fatmata,” I say to her softly, “I’m so sorry.”
I move her arms down by her side, straighten her legs, and pull her lapa over her face. “May your soul find peace.”
I call it over the fence, and watch the exhausted corpse team put down their very late lunch, rise from their chairs, and head to the donning station.
A man in military fatigues roars up on a motorcycle, pops off the bike, and strides into triage with a folded paper in his hand. Second batch lab results.
“Ward C, Bed 7. Negative.”
“Ward C, Bed 6. Negative.”
“Ward A, Bed 8. Negative.”
Eight survivors in one day. A new record.
I lock the nurses station, kick off my gumboots, pull my scrub pants out of my socks, tie up my shoes, and drink more water. I look to my left, past the back fence of the ETU, to the gently rolling hills beyond, and the ridge where a single tall palm is silhouetted in the pale orange of the setting sun. I hold my hand up sideways, palm out, blocking my view of the blue tarpaulin-covered wall behind the burn pit. Above my hand the scene looks like a postcard a tourist would send home, with “Africa!” written across the front in cheerful teal-colored cursive writing.
I mull over whether my priority back at the dorm is to eat first, or to take a bucket shower. It’s not much of a contest. The bucket shower after stripping out of my filthy, dirty, smelly scrubs is frequently the highlight of my day.
Then, suddenly, through the chain-link fence twenty yards in front of me, a movement inside the Suspect ward catches my attention.
A group of five men in spacesuits and elbow-length green gloves. Two in front, two in back. A sprayer behind, obliterating their footprints in a mist of chlorine.
The little boy getting his head washed, what an amazing moment. Good job girly. I am so proud of you. Keep scrubbing them clean, keep the count higher in your heart. Love from Minnesota.
When you left for Africa, you were already an amazing person; When you return, you will have changed in ways I cannot even begin to imagine. I look forward to seeing your smiling face in person upon your return. Stay amazing, dearest Martha.