What is it like to have Ebola and survive? | ActionAid UK

Phillip Ireland is a doctor who had Ebola and survived. He recently became one of ActionAid Liberia’s on-call medical advisors and took part in a recent survivor packs donation event. We invited him to come because we thought it would be a huge boost to recent survivors to have someone else who has gone through recovery speak to them.

Christal Da-Thong talks to Ebola survivor Dr Phillip Ireland
Christal Da-Thong talks to Ebola survivor Dr Phillip Ireland

Dr Ireland is an emergency medicine physician at the JFK Medical Centre in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. I talked to him about his experience of having Ebola and the stigma that goes along with it.

Dr Ireland, please tell us about your experience during your illness from the Ebola virus?

Often Ebola survivors are not able to remember much of what happens while they are ill. But in my case, I can remember most of the events. It started on the 24 July during a meeting that I felt the first symptoms. I had a terrible headache. It was so strong that I thought I saw lights, something like lightning. I immediately left the meeting and went to the clinic. I took my temperature and found out I had a fever and the first thing that struck me was that I had Ebola. Previously, I had been treating two of my colleagues who had died from Ebola. So when I got home, I told my family to leave the house and go to a relative’s home so that they could stay away from me.

How did your family react?

My mother decided that she would stay with me and she made her own personal protective gear. I locked myself in my room, while my family was getting ready to leave the house. I remember my little seven-year-old daughter, Precious, came and opened the door of my room. She just wanted to know what happened to her dad, why he was being locked away, what was going on? For me, that was the scariest moment of the whole Ebola experience. Here was my daughter opening a door and exposing herself to this life-threatening disease. I told her that daddy was sick. And I started screaming at the top of my lungs for someone to come and take her away straight away.

What happened next?

Because there were no spaces in any of the Ebola treatment units around the city, my treatment began at home. I was fed nutritional milk and lots of food high in anti-oxidants like nuts and Moringa leaves. But one evening my symptoms got so bad that I began to go into shock and was dying. They got an ambulance to take me to the Ebola treatment unit and by the time we arrived there I had passed out.

Ebola Survivors

What was the Ebola treatment centre like?

My whole experience in the ETU was like being face-to-face with death because there were dying people all around me. We had some of the best physicians we have in Liberia, but sadly, they weren’t enough. We had long periods of time where we would not see anyone – at first it was at 12-hour intervals. It was in those 12-hour windows that I saw a lot of people die.

How does it feel to have Ebola?

Ebola is a terrible disease. It’s a humiliating disease, it’s debilitating. I remember that on the second night in the ETU, I had such bad diarrhoea and vomiting, that everyone thought that I was going to die in that period. I developed all kinds of complications. I had peripheral neuropathy - numbness, tingling and burning sensations in my feet and hands. I had pharyngitis. I had pneumonia. I had nausea. I had such terrible hiccups – at one point, I hiccupped with every single breath. It was so bad, I couldn’t breathe

What happened to the other people on your ward?

While I was in the centre, I lost a colleague who was lying next to me in the isolation ward. He died during the 12 hour wait period and I spent the entire time lying there next to his dead body. I felt terrible. I tried to call for help and it took a while before someone responded to my call. They came in, checked that that he was dead, and then left. After another long wait, the body removal team came in and took away his body. It was a very sad and depressing experience. Another of my colleagues, another doctor, was also brought into the treatment centre while I was there, which made me feel very sad.

How did you recover from Ebola?

Through it all, I didn’t bleed once which was a very good thing. I had been on the lookout for the bleeding because when you hear about Ebola, you automatically think about bleeding. The fact that I didn’t bleed was comforting for me. After the third day in the treatment centre I started to feel a little better and walk around a little.

When were you discharged?

After I had been in the centre for 14 days, I was discharged. A lot of people turned up to see me walk out and welcome me. I always make a joke about this: as I came out, everyone who was there was crying, celebrating, and clapping – they all kept a safe distance though. As I got closer to them, they pulled further back from me. This continued when I went home.

People would come to see me, but they would stand very far away from me. Even my friends and close relatives. But I didn’t have a problem with this - I didn’t want to be the cause of anyone getting infected with Ebola.

How long did it take friends and people in your community to become fully comfortable around you? 

I’ve been Ebola-free for two and a half months now. For probably a month after I came home, people were still afraid to come too close.  Then my family started to come close – first my kids, my wife and my mother. Then other family members and friends began to follow suit. Although I know a few people who are still a little jittery around me.

Supporting survivors

Dr Ireland joined us to give out Ebola survivor kits to people who had lost everything.

You can help us reach more people whose lives have been devastated by the virus by donating to our Ebola Crisis Appeal.

  • £25 can pay for cleaning and disinfectant materials for three families at risk from Ebola.
  • £50 can provide a survivor kit for someone leaving a treatment centre with nothing.
  • £100 can provide training to a community on how to keep themselves safe and help stop the spread of Ebola.