By CLAIR MacDOUGALLMAY 10, 2016
Anne Deborah Atai-Omoruto, a Ugandan doctor who went to Liberia at the height of the Ebola epidemic in 2014 and helped turn the tide in the battle against the disease, died on May 5 in Kampala, Uganda. She was 59. The cause was pancreatic cancer, her daughter Acom Victoria said.
Dr. Atai-Omoruto, at the request of the World Health Organization, arrived in Liberia in July 2014 with a team of 14 Ugandan health workers she had gathered.
At the time, the outbreak had reached the capital city, Monrovia; nongovernmental organizations were pulling their workers out of the country; and many governments were unwilling to send medics. Eventually, 4,810 people in Liberia died of the disease and 10,678 were infected, making the country the hardest hit in the region.
Dr. Atai-Omoruto and her team began training more than 1,000 Liberian health workers on how to manage Ebola patients and protect themselves from infection.
She also managed a large treatment unit known as the Island Clinic, a joint initiative of the Liberian government and the W.H.O.
“Everything was in disarray and everybody was running away — she came in and stepped up to the plate,” said Dorbor Jallah, who was the national coordinator for the Ebola task force in the early months of the response. “Nobody knew how to manage an Ebola treatment unit, so she had to step up and play all of these multiple roles.”
After the Island Clinic opened, hundreds of patients were transferred there from holding centers throughout the city. To accommodate the influx, Dr. Atai-Omoruto pushed beds closer together and put mattresses in the corridors, creating space to accommodate over 200 patients; the clinic’s original capacity was 120.
Just over a week after the clinic opened, in late September 2014, the West African Ebola outbreak sparked international panic. Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian, was the first person diagnosed with virus in the United States. He died in Dallas on Oct. 8, 2014.
Liberia registered the highest number of deaths in the region. Of the 28,616 reported cases of the virus, 10,678 were in Liberia.
Of the 1,023 patients the Island Clinic served, 612 tested positive for Ebola and 250 of them survived, a little below the average national survival rate of 45 percent.
“A lot of people arrived in a very critical condition and died within hours of their admission,’’ said Dikena G. Jackson, the Ebola Virus Data Coordinator at the Ministry of Health in Liberia. Testing in the early stages of the outbreak was lacking, he said.
When clinic workers threatened to protest over a lack of hazardous-duty pay, Dr. Atai-Omoruto persuaded them to stay on the job while pushing the government to respond.
“She said, ‘Work for your people, don’t let your people die,’ ” Jerry T. Williams, the clinic’s chief of security, said in an interview.
With the epidemic over, the clinic, which was open for only two months, is now empty. The white hospital beds and drip stands have been taken away, and the floors are covered with dust. Dr. Atai-Omoruto’s office is locked and vacant.
Dr. Atai-Omoruto was born on Nov. 22, 1956, in Kumi Town, in eastern Uganda, to Edisa Lusi Atai-Omoruto and David Livingstone Aisu, who were both primary school teachers.
She attended Dr. S.N. Medical College in Jodhpur, India. She completed her master’s degree in medicine at Makerere University College of Health Sciences in Kampala, and became a teacher and chairwoman of the department of family medicine.
Dr. Atai-Omoruto had helped treat patients during cholera and earlier Ebola epidemics, including one in Kibaale, Uganda, in 2012, before she went to Liberia.
In addition to her daughter Acom Victoria, she is survived by her father; four other children, Francis Nsubuga, Dorothy Kiyai, James Ariong and Elizabeth Mary Atai; and three siblings, Francis Omoruto, Rose Mary Imongot and Okurut Kaaka.
Dr. David Kaggwa, a Ugandan pediatrician who worked alongside Dr. Atai-Omoruto at the Island Clinic, said she was known for her no-nonsense style.
“She was fearless throughout the epidemic,” he said in a phone interview. “Her style of work was aggressive and unrelenting, and in the process she didn’t win favor with some people in the government and the W.H.O.”
The people she treated appreciated her care and her emotional support.
“She came in to encourage the patients,” said Henrietta Johnson, a former patient who lost three of her children and her husband. “She said, ‘This fight is not an easy fight, but don’t lose hope, don’t even have it in the back of your mind that you might die.’ ”
Source: New York Times