A well-known nurse to mothers at Buffalo Hospital was on the front lines in the fight against Ebola just months ago, after a charity she’s heavily invested in had her deep in the ravaged country of Liberia last spring.
Though the outbreak was nowhere near the status it is now, nurse Amanda Duerr, who now lives in Clearwater after spending many years in Rockford, is familiar with the conditions contributing to the massive spread of the deadly virus.
“Ebola isn’t something that’s a new challenge for the medical community in a country like Liberia. They’ve seen the virus before. But what it does is highlight what a disaster the medical care system is. There’s one CT scanner in the entire country. There are two X-ray machines, and one wasn’t working the day I saw it. There are no MRI machines. It’s not surprising that an illness like Ebola could turn an area like this into chaos. It’s sort of surprising it hasn’t tipped faster. Right now, they’re fighting very hard,” Duerr said.
From her time in college to her first stint at a hospital in St. Paul, Duerr has been exposed to the Liberian culture. Her good friends at the St. Paul hospital were nurses from the west African nation. Her best friend, Peggy Halverson, was in the process of adopting two children from Liberia when one died from cholera, and the other was taken off a list due to the illnesses spreading through Liberia.
It was that experience that led Peggy and her husband, Mark Halverson, to establish Teamwork Africa – a Christian-based ministry that ties health care to spiritual well-being. It’s target was one of the poorest, Christian countries in the world and its 3.5 million people.
“The country, according to numbers from about five years ago, has a total of 90 doctors. There are 1,100 nurses. Their mortality rate for infants and children under 5 are both among the worst in the world. It’s a country that was torn by civil war for more than 13 years, and it hasn’t been able to find a way to rebuild this infrastructure since the war ended a few years ago,” Duerr said.
Her involvement in Teamwork Africa grew year by year, and now Duerr, a mother to five children, is the charity’s medical outreach coordinator. She works with the charities head person in Liberia – Pastor Peter Flomo. Together, the charity serves the central town of Moses Kwenah Town.
He trip in April 2014 to Liberia wasn’t her first, but it was one of her most important. As the coordinator for medical outreach, Duerr was to work on supplying a new medical center, built with funds from the charity and the village, to help treat cholera patients. Ebola wasn’t even a major concern at that time.
“We kind of felt the country was OK. It seemed it was under control. But when something like this happens, the conditions there are just awful. You have no records to track who was traveling where or who has visited whom, so you have no idea who has been exposed. There is no electrical grid left – it was destroyed by the war. There is no waste management, so trash blows through streets and fields. The hospitals have a small incineration system, but there’s no disposal system for waste at all. And any virus can be limited by hand-washing, but there’s very little clean water for people to even do that. The infrastructure is so poor,” Duerr said.
As she trained Liberian students in the medical field, Duerr bonded with nurses like Nancy, Khakie and Oretha, three older Liberians who had medical training and could relay the messages from Duerr and her team both students and patients.Oretha worked as Teamwork Africa’s Medical Outreach Coordinator on the ground in Liberia – she was Duerr’s partner in the village. Khakie, meanwhile, was the mentor for village health workers.
“You could tell they had such respect among people,” she said.
Unfortunately, both Nancy and Khakie have since succumbed to Ebola fever. Khakie died after being exposed in August. Nancy, who was the town’s pastor’s wife, passed away last month.
“They died doing what they knew they had to do. What they loved. They wanted to help people,” she said. “The truth is, because of the conditions, everyone in Liberia is exposed regularly to some sort of illness. It’s a matter of how bad you’re sick.”
Children were the main population sought by the New Life Medical Center in the village Duerr worked. Most were malnourished. Some had fought cholera. Others were so sick they were asked to transfer to the nation’s major hospital.
“The entire country is in need of a coordinated, global response. That’s the only thing that can really slow anything down,” she said. “Either that, or you have to hope that it spreads, and those who are exposed develop an immunity to the virus. I think this is the big outbreak the World Health Organization and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] have been fearing. The problem is, the area is so broken down, there’s not a plan on what action to take when it’s something this big.”
Teamwork Africa is set to ship another set of supplies to Liberia soon, even if conditions are such that they can’t get on the ground themselves. Duerr would love to go back, but knows that’s not a possibility right now.
“They need everything; food, acetaminophen, personal protective equipment like gloves and masks for healthcare people. The war took everything. Rice is expensive there, because of the inflation. It’s a situation [Ebola] has turned a lot of the hard work we did [mainly fighting cholera] upside down,” Duerr said. “But you have to stay. I’m a mother. I have wonderful patients here. I can’t risk it right now.”
As news spread of Ebola’s presence here in the United States, Duerr said she’s not as concerned about an outbreak here.
“There are so many sterile and clean practices we have at our health care facilities, it’s not even a comparison. Wash your hands. That’s the best advice. If something were to happen, the health care community here would get it under control rather quickly.”
To move forward with its medical mission, and to eventually help Liberia recover from the Ebola pandemic, Teamwork Africa is asking the public’s help to fund future efforts.
“There’s more work to be done at the medical center, and more instruction to help the health workers along,” Duerr said. The charity is looking for church and community partners to keep the process going.
For more information, visit the Teamwork Africa website. Or, email Mandy at medicaloutreach@teamwork