An Ebola survivor’s mission to prevent an outbreak

It is 14 years since Ebola came to Yambio and the disease is again a danger.

By Helene Sandbu Ryeng
Portrait of Dominic Sarawasi
UNICEF South Sudan
05 December 2018

“Ebola kills you know, and no one knows that better than me.”

– says Dominic Sarawasi with conviction.

Dominic’s close contact with the deadly disease has not turned him into a beaten man, rather a determined one.

His nightmare started on a normal day at the hospital in Yambio, in the south west of the country, in 2004. A patient from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was admitted for routine hernia surgery and Dominic was his nurse.

“The patient started having diarrhoea and we had to postpone the surgery. Then he came down with a high fever and started vomiting. I cared for him to the best knowledge, but we had no idea it could be Ebola.”

It was when the patient started bleeding the alarm bells rang, and UNICEF was alerted. “He was bleeding everywhere. Blood coming out of his nose, ears, through his skin. Even tears of blood,” Dominic recalls.

A rapid response team from UNICEF in Nairobi was sent to investigate, but for the nurse and his family it was too late. A few days earlier, he started exhibiting the same early symptoms as the patient that just died. His wife Hosanna, who is a doctor, cared for him.

“At the hospital we heard from the rapid response team that it could be Ebola. My wife was already exposed by caring for me, but I asked her to immediately stop breastfeeding our 9-month-old son Felix.”

It didn’t take long before Hosanna also got sick, and Dominic’s sister Nadia Angela cared for the two. “She was feeding us and bathing us, because the other nurse was already dead.”

The couple’s beds in the hospital were just 6 feet away from each other. Dominic recalls turning his head to see his wife while she was fighting the raging Ebola virus inside her.

“I still remember her last breath. First, she screamed and I tried to get up but my body wouldn’t move. I was so weak. I asked my sister to get the doctor but while she was out looking for him I could hear my wife giving in, exhaling for the last time. When the doctor came she was dead.”

Shortly after, their son Felix died. Then, Dominic’s sister Nadia passed away and a few days later his mother- in- law, Mama Hosanna, also succumbed to the disease. Dominic survived, but his life was changed forever.

“People were scared of me in the beginning. How could I survive when the others didn’t? Back then I could walk in the middle of the road without fear, no one wanted to be close to me.”

It is 14 years since Ebola came to Yambio and the disease is again a danger. A new outbreak is across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the World Health Organization is waring of a high risk it could come to South Sudan. Together with the country’s Ministry of Health, the UN has instigated comprehensive prevention and preparedness activities, primarily in the border areas in the south. Part of it is risk communication and social mobilization activities aim to raise awareness on the Ebola risk, and to ensure people can recognize the signs and symptoms and know what to do if they suspect they have become infected.

“You know, if Ebola comes to Juba, many people could die. In war you can always take cover, but with Ebola there is nowhere to hide. That is why we have to do everything in our power to prevent an outbreak.”

With Ebola back in the region, Dominic says he is on a personal mission to alert as many people as possible about the dangers.

“I raise my hand when I’m in church and I stand up when people are gathered for celebration to give them the message that Ebola is real. No one knows better than me how horrible this disease is.”

 

(Funding for Ebola prevention activities in Western Equatoria, is being generously provided by the by the German Development Bank-KfW and UKaid.)