Meet Kalyani Gomathinayagam, the Indian doctor who treated Ebola in Liberia

  • Priyanka Vora, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Dec 13, 2014 01:17 IST

The Ebola case management centre run by the group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) at Foya in Liberia shut down on Thursday after the region did not report any new cases of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) since October 30.

Dr Kalyani Gomathinayagam, the first Indian doctor to volunteer in Ebola-affected West Africa, was working at the centre for six weeks as a volunteer. She returned to India in October.

On Friday, MSF inaugurated a three-day exhibition in Mumbai to describe the work they are doing in Africa, which was still reeling under the Ebola epidemic. They visitors got a glimpse of the work Dr Gomathinayagam did there.

Speaking from her hometown Madurai, Dr Gomathinayagam said, "You are almost sick when you walk out of the high risk unit, where the patients are admitted. There was a time when I had a headache and had self-quarantined myself." Dr Gomathinayagam must have treated approximately 2,200 patients at the facility.

Dr Gomathinayagam, the only Indian doctor in the area at that time, is on leave and is spending some quality time with her family. "We all have sleepless nights, thinking if I did everything correctly." Owing to the contagious nature of the disease, any health care provider coming in contact with a suspected or a confirmed case of EVD is expected to wear the personal protective equipment (PPE). The PPE reduces the possibility of the provider of the provider coming in contact with any body fluids such as sweat and urine, which is known to contain the germs responsible for spreading of EVD. "We always entered the high risk unit with a buddy (another doctor). The pair had to keep a close watch on each other, so that we do not end up exposing ourselves to the infection," recalled Dr Gomathinayagam.

The PPE made it challenging for the doctors to spend more time with the patients. "We were constantly getting dehydrated because of the PPE and so every hour we spent in the high risk unit had to be utilised optimally. Here, as a doctor you have limitations; you cannot order any blood tests and examine the patient like you do in normal circumstances," she said, who treated an entire family who had contracted EVD.

"One of our staff's sister developed EVD; her mother, husband and children contracted the infection from her. Some survived, we lost others'. We also had patients who had contracted EVD while caring for their neighbours who suffered from EVD," she said.

"People were scared to come to the facility unit because of ignorance and the fear of exposing themselves. They did not want to believe that they had contracted EVD; they thought if you send them to the hospital they will not come back," she added.

Experts said that the concentrated efforts for EVD have adversely impacted the accessibility of healthcare in the affected regions.

"Many healthcare workers were affected with Ebola," said Gomathinayagam, who plans to go back to one of the other seven centres which are still functioning.

"My experience will help me to handle cases better. We cannot be complacent, even one case of Ebola is enough to start the epidemic," she said.

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