When Nigeria recorded its first case of the deadly Ebola virus in 2014, a number of health professionals who came into contact with the first patient, including senior doctor Ameyo Stella Adadevoh, tested positive for the disease and died. Dr. Ada Igonoh, who was part of Adadevoh’s medical team, however, survived, becoming the only female medical doctor to have survived the deadly disease, according to the World Health Organisation.
Then in her late 20s, Igonoh was at work at the First Consultant Hospital, Lagos, Nigeria on July 20, 2014, when a Liberian civil servant, Patrick Sawyer, was wheeled into the emergency room of the hospital.
The 40-year-old Liberian had flown into Nigeria, already sick. Upon his arrival at the airport in Lagos that fateful day, he collapsed and had to be immediately taken to First Consultant Hospital while complaining of fever and body weakness.
Sawyer, who had reportedly come for a business conference in the city, was said to be visibly ill during his flight from Monrovia, vomiting frequently on the plane and even on arrival. Many people later suggested that he should never have been allowed on the plane since he had apparently contracted the Ebola virus from his sister.
At the First Consultant Hospital was Dr. Adadevoh, a UK-trained consultant endocrinologist whose treatment of Sawyer, Nigeria’s first Ebola patient, would later save her country from a devastating Ebola outbreak at a time it was spreading through West Africa.
But in the midst of caring for Sawyer and protecting the West African country from the virus, the medical team including Igonoh put themselves at great risk.
Without a better treatment facility and protective equipment, Dr. Adadevoh created an isolation area by creating a wooden barricade outside Sawyer’s door, according to reports.
What made things worse was that whilst awaiting the result of Sawyer’s Ebola test, Igonoh and her colleagues came under more pressure from Liberian authorities to let him leave, a decision that could have had horrific consequences for Nigeria.
Sawyer, who had denied being into contact with any Ebola patient, was first treated at First Consultant for malaria before the medical team suspected it was Ebola as his condition got worse.
“By the time it was confirmed, he was already gravely ill. And just a couple of hours after the confirmation, he was not responsive,” Igonoh told NPR in 2014.
“I went to the room and saw him. He was in the bathroom, slumped over — and I just knew that this man was gone. I did the necessary, I checked him, checked his pulse. But we had already started putting [in place] the protocols that were needed — the strict nursing barrier, personal protective equipment.
“So we were all armed with the necessary tools to be able to work with him. But by that time, the risk and the harm had already been done. We had already been in contact with him for at least two days before we started to institute all the necessary measures.”
Before Sawyer was tested positive for Ebola, Igonoh, with no gloves on, touched his intravenous fluid bag.
“I picked it up from the bed, put it back on the stand, left the room and I washed my hand. So, between picking up the bag and going to wash my hand, I may have actually touched my eye or some part of my face and it must have gotten into, maybe, the mucosal membrane or something.
“That’s a possibility. It may not even be that. It may be just from touching the door handle,” Igonoh said.
Days after Sawyer had died from the virus (on July 25, 2014), the medical team that had treated him started falling ill – one by one.
“I actually started to feel really sick four days after he was declared dead,” said Igonoh. “It started with joint pains, aches, muscle pains, feeling like I’d walked a mile when I hadn’t really done anything. Then a sore throat, then a loss of appetite, then a mild fever, then a high fever. From then on, I knew that the possibility of this being Ebola, even without being tested, was very high.”
At the end of the day, seven medical staff at the hospital were affected and four lost their lives. Igonoh was taken to an isolation ward after testing positive. There, she spent 14 days praying and reading the bible, while drinking oral rehydration salt (ORS) fluids, and researching Ebola from her iPad.
The first evening after being taken to the isolation ward, the symptoms fully kicked in, Igonoh wrote in her account.
“I was stooling almost every two hours. The toilets did not flush, so I had to fetch water in a bucket from the bathroom each time I used the toilet. I then placed another bucket beneath my bed for the vomiting. On occasion, I would run to the toilet with a bottle of ORS, so that as I was stooling, I was drinking.”
Gradually, she started getting better until she was declared Ebola-free, after about four days of no symptoms and a negative blood test.
“I still believe in miracles. None of us in the isolation ward was given any experimental drugs or so-called immune boosters. I was full of faith, yet pragmatic enough to consume as much ORS as I could, even when I wanted to give up and throw the bottles away.
“I researched on the disease extensively and read accounts of the survivors. I believed that even if the mortality rate was 99 percent, I would be part of the 1 percent who would survive,” Igonoh, who is now a public health advocate and motivational speaker, wrote after she came out of isolation.
Igonoh, who gradually got her strength back after joining her husband and family from isolation, believes that ORS and her faith got her through when she tested positive.
“…I don’t claim to have all the answers to the nagging questions of life. Why do some die and some survive? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God in the midst of pain and suffering? Where does science end and God begin? These are issues we may never fully comprehend on this side of eternity. All I know is that I walked through the valley of the shadow of death and came out unscathed.”