Interview with an Ebola Survivor

The Ebola virus is cruel, with a fatality rate of 90 percent. We spoke to a survivor named Saa Sabas to get a sense of the ordeal. It turns out that if you do survive, people might be afraid of you.

Image via Nigerian Tribune

The Ebola virus is merciless. What starts as a sore throat and a headache quickly evolves into a catatonic fever, with victims hemorrhaging from the eyes and rectum before the organs ultimately break down. This is the situation currently fanning across Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, claiming some 932 people since March in the worst Ebola outbreak to date.

We wanted to interview someone who’s survived Ebola, an illness that generally kills 90 percent of sufferers. After reaching out to various NGOs, we spoke to Saa Sabas, a former medical worker from the southern Guinean city of Guéckédou. With the help of a French translator, he described how he contracted the virus at work, became dangerously ill, and then survived—only to face suspicion from his terrified community. Here’s what he said:

VICE: Hi, Saa, thanks for talking with us. Can you tell us about your background?
Saa Sabas:  OK, we are going to do it little by little. I was born in 1962, on the Ivory Coast in the little town of Bouaké. My father was an ex-serviceman in the French Army, where he worked as a war nurse. He was the one who taught me about medicine, so I worked at the pharmacy at the Guéckédou hospital. I worked there as an auxiliary nurse.

And this is where you got sick?
Yes, and as you know, it was contamination that led to my infection. I was looking after a patient who was also a retired nurse. I stayed with him for quite a long time. He was one of the first people to get sick, and I washed him, fed him, and held his hand.

So you contracted Ebola from him?
Yes. I started to get bouts of fever. Usually when I feel sick I just take an acetaminophen and get better, but this time the fever did not go away. I remembered what the doctors told me about the first signs [of Ebola], so I went directly to the hospital without even stopping at home. The doctors said I should be kept under observation for 21 days, and then they did some medical tests. The morning after, they told me I was infected with the Ebola virus, and they put me in medical care.

How were you feeling by that point?
I was having irregular bouts of fever, going from 38 to 39.6 centigrade [100 to 103 degrees Fahrenheit]. This fever lasted two days; then the third day I got a diarrhea. That lasted four days, until, on the seventh day, I got dysentery. Then finally I had hiccups for four days. I was very worried at that point.

Ebola patient receiving treatment. Image via Simusa.org

What was the worst part of all this?
The most difficult thing for me was the hiccuping stage. I remember also that my throat was so sore that I couldn’t eat. I’ve had fever before, and I’ve had diarrhea before. All of that, of course, made me weak. But the hiccuping stage really scared me. I’ve heard that lots of people die at this stage of the illness.

All in all, how long were you sick for?
Two days of irregular fever, four days of diarrhea, three days of dysentery, four days of hiccuping. That makes 13 days of illness. I was very well fed. I was very well treated. I was also kept under observation until I started to feel better.

So what happened when you got better?
When they let me go, they gave me clothes, and Doctors Without Borders gave me a lift back home. When I was getting out of the car, they took my hand to prove to other people that I wasn’t contagious anymore, in order to avoid stigmatization. Some people were scared, and holding my hand was a great symbol of my recovery. They also gave me a certificate that proved that I was fully recovered and that nobody should fear me. Then my friends started to cheer me and shake my hand. I thank God for that. Some people now call me “the survivor,” “anti-Ebola man,” or "the Revenant."

Could you tell a bit me more about the stigmatization of Ebola survivors?
My family was stigmatized when I was in hospital. Stigmatization comes from the fear of contamination, and when I realized that, I started to be socially self-confident again. I want to give you a concrete example: I now work raising awareness about Ebola alongside people from Germany, France, the United States, England, and so on. If any of them knew I’d been infected with the Ebola virus, they’d still be comfortable working with me. That’s why it’s important for me to go from village to village with the Red Cross, and fight against discrimination. I can use myself as an example. I say to people, “Look at me. Do you think these people from all over the world would work with me if I were contagious?” People often answer, “We get it, but it’s still frightening.” The discrimination against those who have been sick and have recovered is decreasing.

And what message do you want to spread with your work?
We tell people to break the chain of contamination. We say, if anyone feels any symptoms, go as fast as possible to the hospital, because you have more than 50 percent chance of survival if you go there in the first stage of the illness. And for you and your colleagues, you must not stop talking about us. You should encourage the medical scientists working on treatment for the Ebola virus.

Last question, Saa. How has Ebola changed your life?
Since I got a sick and survived, it has brought me a lot. I have become an awareness raiser. I go to see other men in communities, and I raise awareness about the Ebola virus. Now if anyone from anywhere in Guinea is looking for some information about Ebola, you have to ask Sabas your questions. Like you, people are coming to me. All that, of course, has changed my life. There is a saying: “Sometimes misfortune is good.”

Follow Julian Morgans on Twitter.