By: Rev. Lowell Gess
Rev. Lowell Gess, a 93-year-old retired ophthalmologist and Minnesota United Methodist pastor, headed to Sierra Leone in early January to bring medicine and moral support to the country he calls his second home. Gess established the Kissy UMC Eye Hospital in Freetown in 1984, and many local churches, individuals, and organizations provided donations that were put toward supplies and equipment for this trip. Although Gess isn’t playing an active role in treating Ebola patients, he is working at Kissy and helping staff diagnose difficult cases of eye disease. Here are Gess’ reflections based on the first half of his visit.
It is February, a month since arriving in Sierra Leone. November and December have been Ebola’s deadliest in the country.
The 12th of 13 Sierra Leone doctors who contracted the Ebola virus has died. They represent 8 percent of the Sierra Leone medical doctor work force, which is equivalent to 1,431 Minnesota doctors.
Upon my arrival, bodies of the dead and dying were lying in the street, waiting for an ambulance, with health workers in personal protective clothing to carry them away in a careful, safe, and sacred burial or to a holding or treatment center.
A week or 10 days after my arrival, there were several days without an exponential increase of new cases. By the end of the second week, there was a drop in the numbers—a trend that has continued, which enabled President Ernest Koroma to lift the travel ban to avoid hunger and to stimulate a collapsing economy.
When I first arrived, I could not believe the subdued and somber number of people in the street with so few vehicles on the road. I was able to be driven to the heart of the city without any stop or traffic jam.
Suddenly, people have come out of the cracks to flood the streets. It took over an hour to return from downtown, a distance of about four miles. People were chanting that the devil Ebola will be kicked out of Sierra Leone by March. I return to the USA on March 5. It is with anticipation that I look for the number of new cases to become lower day by day.
Several days ago, the local newspaper reported that there are only seven patients in the available 1,300 beds.
A Cuban doctor who instinctively reached out to prevent a patient from falling returned from his successful treatment in Geneva, Switzerland, to thank the health workers who had cared for him during his early stage.
At our Kissy Eye Hospital, protective gear is now not being worn. We continue to wear gloves and follow hand-washing procedures.
On Saturday, which is an off day for many of the staff, 30 patients were seen and treated.
The Kissy Eye Hospital has been the only health facility in the entire country of 6 million people that has not closed its doors during the Ebola epidemic. We have not lost a single member of our staff of 29. God be praised!
The last four weeks will allow me more freedom in teaching sessions, which the staff loves. Never before have I had a class applaud at the end of an instruction session.
Today, I attended a worship service at King Memorial United Methodist Church in Freetown, carefully seated among 600 worshippers. Holy Communion was served. The pastor observed the only white face in the congregation, and knowing that I was an ordained pastor as well as a doctor, asked if I would like to say a few words.
I took the microphone and looked forward to the congregation. Directly in front of me was Madam Sia Koroma, the first lady of Sierra Leone, wife of President Ernest Koroma.
At the conclusion of the service, they invited me to participate in administering Holy Communion and then end the service of sending forth with the benediction. I was overwhelmed with emotion as I remembered that it had been almost 58 years to the day when I was given the same privilege in 1957.
I mentioned the names of Pastor S.M. Renner, who led that long-ago service, and Pastor J.K. Fergusson, who ended it. Hardly anyone remembered these names of more than two generations ago.
This trip to Sierra Leone has turned out to be critical. The generous gifts received from churches, pastors, corporations, friends, and caring individuals have made supplies and medicine available.
Now, when the crisis seems to be contained, supplies and medicine are beginning to arrive from different countries in the world. Kissy is receiving a generous supply of medicine from Bread for the World, based in Germany. What I carried when I came in January 4 was transported for free by United Airlines and was immediately available at the height of the crisis.
I cannot adequately express my thanks and the thanks of the Sierra Leone people for your sharing of donations when they were needed for sparing lives.
I know that you gave as ‘‘unto the Lord,’’ but it was a joy for me to bring the medicine and supplies to where they were promptly used.
Everyone is taking a deep breath. By being vigilant and careful, there is confidence that incidental outbreaks can be handled as even the most rural and illiterate persons now understand that you cannot touch an Ebola patient or wash or caress a corpse, as has been a part of their culture. Over half of the Sierra Leone districts are now registering zero new cases of Ebola.
This plague has had a spiritual impact. The loss of entire families has reminded all of the ‘‘cares and trials of this life’’ and how precious life is.
‘‘If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land’’ (2 Chronicles 7:14, KJV).
With love from Sierra Leone,
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church