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Dr. Kwan Kew Lai Authors Book About the Deadly Ebola Outbreak in West Africa

A Chicago Medical School alumna reflects on her experience of service and solidarity during international relief missions, including the most widespread Ebola outbreak in history.

Kwan Kew Lai, MD '79, a veteran of international aid efforts, writes about her work as a volunteer with the International Medical Corps during the spread of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa in her recently published book "Lest We Forget."

An infectious disease expert and a Harvard medical faculty physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, MA, and Needham Hospital in Needham, MA, Dr. Lai traveled to Liberia at great personal risk as the disease was peaking there in 2014. She served in Sierra Leone in 2015. More than 11,000 West Africans died during the outbreak, according to the World Health Organization, which ultimately infected 28,000 people.

"I want to honor the tremendous courage I witnessed, the memory of the people who died and the people who fought the outbreak," said Dr. Lai, whose work during the Ebola epidemic — reported by NPR and The New York Times — is recorded in diaries and blogs she continues to pen during humanitarian missions that have taken her to more than a dozen countries in the wake of natural disasters, conflict and war.

Was I afraid of contracting Ebola? Dr. Lai writes in the prologue of her book.Sure — I am human like everyone else. But what about the Liberian health workers who stayed at their jobs or volunteered for new ones simply because they were the health care providers and the patients needed them? Hundreds of health care workers had contracted Ebola, and over half of them had died. I could not sit back and watch the death toll rise and not do something about it.

With no proven treatment available, Dr. Lai and other providers, clad in layers of personal protective equipment (PPE) that she dubs her "Darth Vader suit," working long hours in sweltering heat, offered comfort and supportive care, rehydrating patients with oral and intravenous fluids. About half died within two weeks of presenting.

The book includes diary passages painful to read.

Children afflicted with Ebola were probably some of the loneliest people in the world, she writes on Oct. 25, 2014. When their test results came back positive, they were wrenched away from their loved ones and led to a blue tarpaulin room, hot and humid during the day, surrounded by strangers, many of them adults groaning with pain…. In between rounds there was no one to call for help… For days they saw no familiar faces, had no one to comfort them or hold their hands. Many, feeling rejected, abandoned and confused, became apathetic and lost much of their ability to fight the infection.

In 2017, Dr. Lai volunteered at two refugee camps on mainland Greece, and in 2018 at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, where she treated people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and numerous African countries and noted in a blog on the experience that it was difficult to run a clinic with medications in such short supply. In January 2018 and again in August she offered medical relief to Rohingya refugees, more than 700,000 of whom have poured into Bangladesh, fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

"There's a fine line between the refugees and the local people who are just as poor," Dr. Lai noted. A blog entry from Aug. 6 observes:

On the hard cement floor in front of a shuttered shop, two children slept, like the stray dogs here, with barely a blanket between them…left to fend for themselves in this harsh world.

A native of Malaysia, Dr. Lai received a full scholarship to attend Wellesley College, which recognized her with its 2017 Alumnae Achievement Award. She graduated from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine but during her final year applied to CMS and gained admission as a third-year student.

"The Chicago Medical School opened many doors for me and allowed me to do the work I love," said Dr. Lai, who urges more students to participate in RFU's global health initiative and serve people in developing countries through medical missions.

"You have to do one, to be inspired to do more," she said.

Make your impact by providing scholarship support to help CMS students achieve their aspirations by removing economic barriers. 

Posted November 19, 2018
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