Dr Sheik Umar Khan was a doctor from Sierra Leone who led the fight against the Ebola virus disease in Sierra Leone and saved more than 100 people before succumbing to the deadly disease and died aged 39.
Doctors and Nurses are part of professionals striving to make the world a better place. Their sacrifices cannot be repaid. However, we must profoundly seek to elevate their status in society by admonishing their heroics and commitment to humanity. Eight years ago, Sierra Leone lost a national hero, Dr Sheik Umar Khan, a jewel in the medical field who dedicated more than a decade of his life for others to live.
Dr Sheik Umar Khan was a selfless Sierra Leonean doctor who risked his life to save lives during the Ebola epidemic that killed thousands of Sierra Leoneans including him. When the Ebola virus disease first captured the West African country of Sierra Leone, Dr Khan was among the first leading doctors in Sierra Leone who took up the risk to combat the virus. Even when there were not enough protected medical gears for doctors in Sierra Leone then, Dr Khan had to do what he was born to do – to save lives. He saved the lives of more than 100 patients before succumbing to the deadly disease himself.
Khan, the youngest of ten children, was born in Lungi, Port Loko District, Sierra Leone, in 1975. Even as a child, he envisioned a career in medicine, frequently calling himself a “doctor,” much to his family’s chagrin. His desire came true when he received his medical degree from the University of Sierra Leone’s College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences in 2001 and completed his internship in 2004. In 2005, Dr Khan, after the death of the country’s only Lasser Fever Dr Aniru Conteh, was appointed chief physician of the Lassa Fever Research Program at Kenema Government Hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone. The risks must have been clear, since his predecessor, Dr Aniru Conteh, died from Lassa fever after a needlestick accident (Bausch et al., 2004). For many doctors in Sierra Leone, moving to the rural areas would be a bottleneck to their professions as they would prefer to live and work in the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown, where they thought economic opportunities are many. But Dr Khan quickly adapt to working in the remote town of Kenema because he wanted to make a difference by saving lives.
Dr Khan then started to connect the dots in his fight against Lasser Fever in Sierra Leone and being the only Lasser Fever physician in Sierra Leone, he worked in collaboration with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation, Tulane University (New Orleans, Louisiana), and the World Health Organization, to direct patient care at the Lassa Fever Ward, the only facility in the world dedicated year-round to the care of patients with a viral haemorrhagic fever, he also quickly developed skills in clinical research, co-authoring numerous important manuscripts on Lassa fever and other viral diseases (Khan et al., 2008, Bausch et al., 2010, Hadi et al., 2010, Shaffer et al., 2014, Schoepp et al., 2014, Kouyoumdjian et al., 2010).
Dr Khan was well-known for his cheerful demeanour. He, an AC Milan fan and supporter, and his friends organised a football-watching club, meeting nightly at the same location in Kenema to watch games, share a meal, and pontificate on the merits and failings of their favourite teams. Khan, who is always looking to expand his professional knowledge, took a leave of absence from Kenema from 2010 to 2013 to pursue specialist training in internal medicine at the West African College of Physicians in Accra, Ghana. During this time, he had another encounter with a hazardous infection when he was given a needlestick while extracting blood from an AIDS patient. Fortunately, he was able to conduct post-exposure chemoprophylaxis swiftly, which prevented infection.
THE EBOLA OUTBREAK
The Ebola Virus Disease also called hemorrhagic fever was first discovered in Congo, in 1976. It is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads in the human population through human-to-human transmission. Symptoms include high fever, bleeding, and central nervous system damage. The Ebola Virus Disease dubbed an Epidemic occurred in Sierra Leone, in 2014. The disease claimed approximately 3,955 lives, in what was considered to be a quite devastating blow to the socio-economic and health status of the country.
When the Ebola epidemic arrived in Sierra Leone in May, he was at the heart of the response – seeing patients, directing activities, and constantly on the phone with government officials and countless others coordinating the control efforts. As a frontline worker, Dr Khan was actively involved in the fight against the disease. He usually made regular trips between Kenema and Freetown to brief the Ministry of Health and visit the Connaught Hospital.
As the Ebola virus continued its ravage, Dr Khan was aware and cautious of the risks involved in fighting such a deadly virus in a country where the health system is crippling: “I am afraid for my life, I must say…Health workers are prone to the disease because we are the first port of call for somebody who is sickened by disease.” His sister Aissata echoed the concern: “I told him not to go in there [the EVD Treatment Center], but he said ‘If I refuse to treat them, who would treat me?’” Sadly, having dodged the bullets of the Lassa virus and HIV, his luck ran out with Ebola.
In July 2014, Dr Khan complained of what was considered a common cold but later proved to be the Ebola virus. He was later admitted for treatment and observation at the Ebola Treatment Centre in Kailahun, one week after diagnosis showed he had contracted the disease. Doctors who tended to him were sure of recovery, reporting that he had shown signs of improved health.
However, he sadly passed away on 29th July 2014 (aged 39), a week after being diagnosed.
THE MAN WHO SACRIFICED HIS LIFE FOR OTHERS TO LIVE!
Dr Khan was a servant-leader. His indefatigable efforts in caring for the sick were unmatched. He developed a peculiar habit of hugging discharged Ebola patients that were leaving his ward to lift their spirits. His death served as a warning to those who had questioned the existence of the Ebola disease. He was officially certified a national hero by the Ministry of Health and the former President Koroma. Dr Sheik Umar Khan was a Lecturer, Doctor, Humanitarian, Servant to the people, a fearless personality, and an inspiration to all recognized professionals in the medical field.
Dr Khan was not the only one who succumbed to the Ebola virus, there was also Mbalu Fonnie, Chief Nurse of the Lassa Fever Ward, who died on July 21st, at the age of 57. Nurse Fonnie, who had been with the Lassa fever programme since 1981, is rightfully considered the program’s foundation. She was also a Lassa fever survivor, having contracted the disease while caring for a woman suffering from a spontaneous abortion in the 1980s. Many other healthcare workers in Sierra Leone who died of the disease, doctors and health workers like Mohammed Fullah, Elizabeth Lengie Koroma, Alice Kovoma, Alex Moigboi, Sahr Nyukor, Vandi Sinnah, Nancy Yoko – the list goes on and on and on!
Remember Dr Khan! Remember all Doctors and Nurses striving to make the world a better place!