FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — A surgeon working in Sierra Leone has been diagnosed with Ebola and will be flown Saturday to the United States for treatment, officials from Sierra Leone and the United States said.
Dr. Martin Salia was to be taken to Omaha to be treated at the Nebraska Medical Center, Sierra Leone’s chief medical officer, Dr. Brima Kargbo, told The Associated Press on Friday. Salia reportedly lives in Maryland.
Salia is a general surgeon who had been working at Kissy United Methodist Hospital in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown. Patients, including mothers who hours earlier had given birth, fled from the 60-bed hospital after news of the Ebola case emerged, United Methodist News reported.
The hospital was closed on Tuesday after Salia tested positive and he was taken to the Hastings Ebola Treatment Center near Freetown, the church news service said. Kissy hospital staffers will be quarantined for 21 days.
A Sierra Leone citizen, the 44-year-old lives in Maryland and is a permanent U.S. resident, according to a person in the United States with direct knowledge of the situation. The person was not authorized to release the information and spoke on condition of anonymity.
His wife, Isatu Salia, said in a telephone interview Friday evening that she had spoken with her husband by phone earlier in the day and that his voice sounded weak and shaky. But he told his wife of more than 20 years “I love you” in a steady voice.
Isatu Salia said she plans to go to Nebraska, where he will be treated, because she believes her presence will make a difference for her husband, whom she called “caring” and “hardworking.”
Salia received his surgical training from a group called the Pan African Academy of Christian Surgeons, which seeks to train African doctors on a level comparable to training they would receive in the U.S., said Richard Toupin, of Auburn, Indiana, a fellow medical missionary.
“He is one of the best-trained surgeons in his country,” Toupin said. “He is a very competent surgeon.”
Bruce Steffes, executive director of PAACS, said Salia graduated from the surgical training program in 2008. The training includes a requirement to practice in Africa for four years after completion. As a result, Steffes said, Salia was free to practice anywhere he wanted, but elected to stay in Sierra Leone, where the need for surgeons is immense.
“People like Martin are just absolutely dedicated, highly trained … and doing their best in absolutely horrifying conditions,” Steffes said.
Jeff Bleijerveld, director of global ministries for the United Brethren in Christ church, said he last talked to Salia in February 2013, when they met to discuss planning for a hospital in the southern part of Sierra Leone. He recalled watching Salia perform a hernia surgery on a young boy, assisted by a handyman who was not actually a doctor. He recalled Salia leading the surgical team in prayer before the operation.
The United Brethren played an early role in Salia’s medical training.
“He’s a quiet leader,” Bleijerveld said. “Our people still have a real affection for him.”
The doctor will be the third Ebola patient at the Omaha hospital and the 10th person with Ebola to be treated in the U.S. The last, Dr. Craig Spencer, was released from a New York hospital on Tuesday.
The Nebraska Medical Center said Thursday it had no official confirmation that it would be treating another patient, but that an Ebola patient in Sierra Leone would be evaluated for possible transport to the hospital. The patient would arrive Saturday afternoon.
Salia came down with symptoms of Ebola on Nov. 6 but test results were negative for the deadly virus. He was tested again on Monday, and he tested positive. Salia is in stable condition at an Ebola treatment center in Freetown. It wasn’t clear whether he had been involved in the care of Ebola patients.
Kissy is not an Ebola treatment unit but Salia worked at at least three other medical facilities, United Methodist News said, citing health ministry sources.
The U.S. State Department said it was helping facilitate the transfer of Salia; the U.S. Embassy in Freetown said he was paying for the expensive evacuation. The travel costs and care of other Ebola patients flown to the U.S. were covered by the groups they worked for in West Africa.
Sierra Leone is one of the three West Africa nations hit hard by an Ebola epidemic this year. Five other doctors in Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola – and all have died.
The disease has killed more than 5,000 people in West Africa, mostly in Sierra Leona, Guinea and Liberia.
The hospital in Omaha is one of four U.S. hospitals with specialized treatment units for people with highly dangerous infectious diseases. It was chosen for the latest patient because workers at units at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital and the National Institutes of Health near Washington are still in a 21-day monitoring period.
Those two hospitals treated two Dallas nurses who were infected while caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who fell ill with Ebola shortly after arriving in the U.S. and later died.
The other eight Ebola patients in the U.S. recovered, including the nurses. Five were American aid workers who became infected in West Africa while helping care for patients there; one was a video journalist.