As the Ebola virus spread through Liberia with frightful speed in the fall of 2014, Roseville resident Shelley Spurlock was up at 4 a.m. daily, hoping she wouldn’t find news about another dead student or health worker in the war-torn country where she’s focused her work for the last decade.
Spurlock has been helping the coastal African nation rebuild since its destructive civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s, mostly through her scholarship distribution nonprofit Raise Your Hand Foundation, which launched in 2007.With her help, Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento and other groups sent tons of syringes, lab coats, stethoscopes and latex gloves in 2014 to aid in the fight against Ebola. Now, she and Liberian resident Alexander Ireland – in town for a visit earlier this month – are on a mission to bolster the nation’s depleted health care workforce by giving youth who survived the outbreak a chance at a medical education.
Ebola is a violent illness that spreads through bodily fluids and causes severe bleeding and organ failure. It broke out in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014 and has since killed more than 11,000 people including 4,800 in Liberia. The disease spread especially quickly in Liberia because of unhealthy practices such as not washing hands, eating bush meat and handling the dead without proper protection as well as a weak health infrastructure, according to experts and media reports.
Ireland, a 32-year-old public health master’s graduate who helps run the Raise Your Hand Foundation on the ground in Liberia, watched the crisis unfold from his Congotown apartment and tried his best to educate people about how to avoid the virus. He visited Roseville in December to thank Spurlock and other Sacramento groups for their assistance during that chaotic time.
Q: When the Ebola crisis took hold in Liberia, what were some of the first actions the Raise Your Hand Foundation took? What needs did you identify immediately?
A: Ireland — Initially when the Ebola crisis started, what we started noticing was that they halted a lot of activities and it presented economic challenges to people. People could not go to businesses. People could not sell. People could not go to the market to buy food.
All schools in Liberia were closed. For those who were already in school and being sponsored, everything halted at that time. What we did was we transferred some of our funds to sponsor students to dedicate it to basic needs to keep them fed and prevent them from contracting the disease.
A: Spurlock — At that point we weren’t funding scholarships, but people were literally starving.
Q: There were a lot of reports during the Ebola crisis that the Liberian health force was not prepared for illness on that scale. Was that true?
A: Ireland — The health sector was weak during the Ebola crisis. People knew that. Ebola was the point which exposed the weakness of the health system in Liberia. We needed health workers, and we needed to build a health system that would be able to protect people, especially in the preventive sense.
If the Ministry of Health had had a tight system at the border, Ebola would not have spread through the country the way it did.
Q: You’ve given scholarships to more than 250 Liberian youth over the years, and some of them turned out to be health workers who assisted in the crisis. What was it like to see that?
A: Spurlock — The courage of the Liberians that we saw, the health care workers and the way they just dealt with the risks and did the best they could with limited resources to protect themselves but put themselves in a vulnerable spot to care for others was absolutely amazing. It was really something to witness. And to see our students out there doing that – we had students that were serving as nurses, serving as laboratory technicians, working in the field. ...
Q: Your group, with help from Mercy General Hospital, sent thousands of dollars’ worth of personal protective equipment for health workers and other medical supplies. What impact did that have on the ground level?
A: Ireland — Mercy General Hospital did the shipment, and it was very important at that particular time. It was really in high need and it really came right on time. It meant a lot to a lot of health workers and citizens. That donation was really on point.
We had a lot of contributions. One of the concerns was that during Ebola so many medical supplies were depleted. Even the normal medical needs were not able to be addressed because they were in such critically short supply
Q: How has the Liberian health system changed since the outbreak?
A: Ireland — When Ebola hit, they had experts from other countries who were able to eradicate Ebola. They had international NGOs and U.N. agencies to educate health workers at the ministry and in other areas. We were able to build training centers. The expertise is now embedded in the health system, and the health system is better than it was before.
Q: But are there enough health workers?
A: Ireland — Of everyone who died from Ebola, the most exposed were health workers because they had no idea what Ebola was. Health workers were not actually getting paid for the amount of risk they were taking. Some of them started pulling back. Right now we still need more health workers – both curative and preventive.
A: Spurlock — One thing we did, very purposefully, was increase the number of nursing scholarships. One thing we did during the crisis was if people were donating, we would use those funds toward new students. As soon as schools resumed, we had six new scholarship recipients. We’ve also picked up laboratory technicians at the request of one of our schools, feeling that that appeared to be a very necessary career during the Ebola crisis.
Q: What’s next for Raise Your Hand Foundation in Liberia?
A: Ireland — Poverty is still a major challenge in Liberia. For poverty to be eradicated from Liberia now is going to take a very, very long time. Once they get educated they can get work and become breadwinners. So RYHF has contributed to the poverty reduction strategy in Liberia.
A: Spurlock — We have such a need. The list just keeps growing. We have to be very careful, when we take students on, that we can forecast enough of a budget to see them all the way through. We have the infrastructure to do it, we just need the funds. As we get more money in, we can put more students through school.