“The moral imperative to try and help people less fortunate than us isn’t something I really question, it’s kind of a given. For me, the question is how do I do that effectively in the situation that I find myself in?”
Matt Jackson’s situation is a doctor finishing his training in anesthesia and intensive care in Manchester, UK. An attender at Longsight Church of the Nazarene for the past six years, Jackson recently returned from seven weeks assisting in a clinical trial for new Ebola treatment drugs in West Africa, working with patients who have contracted the virus and helping to train local nurses and doctors to participate in the trial.
Jackson has known he wanted to be a doctor for as long as he can remember. Having grown up in an expat family in Israel and attending an international school, early on he developed a desire to be involved in cross-cultural ministry in some form.
But after his family returned to the UK, and he married and started his own family, and began medical school – a years’-long endeavor – the idea of moving to another country to minister long-term seemed less of an option.
In the past few years, he began to explore the idea of using his medical training and expertise internationally in short-term settings. And opportunities began to arise for participating in training trips to Africa.
Last summer and fall when the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was dominating European news headlines, Jackson felt he wanted to do something to help. He learned of the clinical trial that would be taking place at the start of this year in Liberia, and asked to join. With permission and support from his workplace and his wife and family, Jackson embarked for the seven-week mission. (To read about the clinical trial, click here.)
Due to the security concerns, he was advised not to venture outside of the hotel or the treatment center. Every day, in the sweltering heat he and his colleagues dressed in the multi-layered, full-cover suits they were required to wear to protect them from contracting the highly contagious Ebola virus from their patients.
Together with the local nurses, the team Jackson was working with would invite patients to participate in the clinical trial and explain all the details of what it would mean for them to do so. Those who agreed to the parameters would receive the treatment.
After about five weeks in Monrovia, Liberia, the team moved to Sierra Leone, where there were more patients, and concluded their time after two and a half weeks there.
Working in intensive care centers in the U.K., Jackson is well acquainted with death.
“Most of the patients referred to me in the U.K. are because they’re dying and the question is can I offer something to prevent and reverse that,” he said.
He continued to see death while in Liberia.
He remembers three teenagers who were admitted at the same time to his treatment center. All three had been orphaned when their parents died from Ebola; while grieving the loss of their parents, each of them had at least one sibling contract the disease, enter the treatment center, and then pass away.
Now it was their turn.
“You could see the fear in their eyes, as well as that they were still grieving for their parents and their family,” he said. “They were so worried that would happen to them as well. Of the three I’m thinking about, one recovered and two died.”
Jackson learned that those who survive Ebola do not face a trouble-free future. First, they continue to have physical problems even after they’ve fully recovered, such as ongoing stomach pain, partial paralysis, and other problems.
Additionally, survivors have been stigmatized in the culture, as those around them are afraid they can still contract the disease from the survivor.
The 2014 outbreak of Ebola is just one of many of the disease’s outbreaks in Africa since it first became known in 1976, but it’s the first time that the disease moved to urban, highly populated areas, which not only raised the infection and death rate, but overwhelmed the region’s already thinly-stretched health care system.
Jackson compared his own hospital in the UK, which can have as many as 80 anesthetists alone for every 750,000 people residing in an area, and many more general practitioners and nurses, not to mention all the specialists and support personnel, to Liberia, where for the entire nation of 4.5 million there are only 50 trained doctors of any kind. And the West African health care systems also lack trained personnel who can manage the logistics of ordering the right quantities of medicine and accurately distribute them where they are needed, as well as high tech medical devices, technicians who are trained on how to use them, personnel who know how to maintain and repair them, and the many other roles that keep a complex national health system running smoothly.
“It’s difficult but possible to build a hospital, buy the equipment and buy the drugs, but what you really need is the infrastructure and training for the people who are going to work there to make it work,” he said.
That’s why he believes that many more health crises lie in the future, and why, having been involved in a short-term crisis situation this year, he is more committed to being involved in longer-term solutions for African health care, such as training and advising programs.
While he was separated from his family and culture for seven weeks, involved in an emotionally intense and demanding situation, Jackson said that the support not only of his workplace, but also the prayers of his local Nazarene church and family made him feel he could focus on the task at hand.
“That was quite a powerful emotion,” he said. “I think it helps you realize it’s not all about what you’re doing, the excitement you’re having, the egocentric way you can see aid work, but realizing there’ve got to be so many people in the background who may not be able to go themselves but can still provide that support to enable other people to go.”