A Plague Year: A Doctor at Work in an Ebola Treatment Unit4 min read

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This content was originally published by CLAIR MacDOUGALL on 20 April 2017 | 9:00 am.
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Dr. Steven Hatch carries a patient to the high-risk ward at Bong County Ebola Treatment Unit, Liberia, October 2014.

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Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

INFERNO
A Doctor’s Ebola Story
By Steven Hatch
320 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $27.99.

By my count, “Inferno: A Doctor’s Ebola Story,” by Steven Hatch, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical Sschool, is the second account to be released by an American doctor who treated patients suffering from Ebola in West Africa. Kent Brantly’s 2015 memoir, “Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us Into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic,” written with his wife, Amber, follows their faith-inspired journey to serve as medics in Liberia. Other international aid workers are also working on books on the outbreak, but what one hopes for are accounts by Liberia’s own response heroes and epidemiologists. There are already too many stories of humanitarian disasters in which local heroes, victims and survivors are subsumed by a foreign protagonist’s narrative. Hatch’s book is no exception. What could have been a harrowing but important attempt to grapple with an epidemic that sickened more than 28,000 people and killed 5,000 in Liberia alone instead feels hastily written.

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“This is a horror story. And as if someone from central casting were pulling the strings, this horror story begins with a small child happily playing right outside his home.” Hatch tells the story of Emile Ouamouno, a 2-year-old from Meliandou, Guinea, who is widely believed to be Patient Zero. Emile came down with a mysterious illness, possibly passed on by one of the bats that lived in a hollow tree that children played in. He died days later, and within a month, his mother, younger sister and grandmother were dead too. This is just one instance in which Hatch resorts to melodrama when the stories of the outbreak are already sufficiently surreal and very often tragic.

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From this opening, “Inferno” meanders on, failing to find a coherent voice or strategy to convey the drama of Hatch’s experience. Instead of bringing us straight into the hot zone, he drags the reader through pages of potted history of the outbreak and of Liberia’s founding by freed American slaves before finally taking us to the treatment unit. Once there, the book picks up as Hatch toils in a constraining yellow hazardous materials suit. His days are long and arduous, and the decisions he must make are heartbreaking — to separate families who have recovered from those who have been infected. In one instance, Hatch has to separate a 6-year-old girl named Josephine from her mother, who tested negative. Josephine looks at him, dressed in his yellow protective suit as though he were a monster. Hatch persists in thinking he is doing the correct thing — until Josephine later dies, “terrified and alone.”

“Josephine was correct: I was a monster — her own personal monster — at the moment I escorted her on what would be her final journey,” he writes. “And I had patted myself on the back at the time, thinking myself so swell for being such a sensitive and caring physician, even as I facilitated a horror from which Josephine’s mother will never fully recover. My smugness gnawed at me for weeks after she died, then months. It gnaws at me still.”

Gnaw it might, but Hatch never lingers more than a line or two on such moments. He gives us the barest glimpses into his feelings and doesn’t speak to many survivors about their experiences.

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Stranger still, Hatch’s reasons for going to Liberia are never made fully clear. He says he didn’t expect to come back alive; given that he had a wife and two children, this decision feels puzzling at best. We know only that he was inspired by a Liberian colleague, Dr. Abraham Borbor, who worked at a grim hospital in Monrovia that Liberians regarded as the final destination before death. Borbor later succumbed to Ebola himself, and while his heroism is obvious, we never get a vivid sense of the man himself and why Hatch felt so compelled by his example.

In the final chapter Hatch meditates on the newfound love of a Liberian and an expat colleague and the weddings that abound in Monrovia as the outbreak is finally coming to an end. These weddings are “bookends,” he writes, “assertions that, whatever setbacks lay ahead, happiness and contentment would still triumph.” However much you’d like to agree, “Inferno” leaves you with the unsettling feeling that both Liberia and Hatch have yet to fully understand the horror of what they have witnessed. Liberians rarely speak about Ebola today; the grief is still too raw. Despite significant progress in the health sector, hospitals and clinics still struggle with hygiene, and Liberians continue to die of preventable illnesses. Even three years later, we know little about what triggered the outbreak of a virus that burned the region and could emerge again.

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