In July 2014, a patient with undiagnosed Ebola arrived at Dr. Adaora Okoli’s hospital in Nigeria. While the staff attempted to diagnose the man's illness, Okoli moved his IV bag to a hook. That's all it took for her to contract the disease.
Okoli survived. Now 27, she studies medicine at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Diseases, and in the Jan. 15 edition of Time magazine, guest editor Bill Gates featured her as one of his "Heroes in the Field" for her grit and determination.
"Her courage and optimism are inspiring," Gates wrote in the magazine.
Hours after being admitted to the hospital in Nigeria, the patient with Ebola died. Doctors and staff were quarantined to prevent spread of the disease. They took their temperature during the morning, during the day and at night. If a doctor developed a fever, his or her blood would be taken to test for infection.
Okoli said she started developing symptoms of the Ebola, a sore throat, headaches and stomach problems.
“After the patient was diagnosed with Ebola and passed away, were were all under a lot of stress,” Okoli said. “Sometimes when the body is under intense stress, it starts to develop symptoms. I rationalized all of these symptoms as a result of the stress we were all under.”
Then, she developed a fever. Blood samples were taken to a lab and examined.
Okoli remained optimistic until she received a call 24 hours later about her blood. Her sample had been mixed up with another sample, the voice on the phone claimed. The hospital required a second sample.
“The doctor on the phone was not very convincing, and he was stammering and stuttering as he talked,” Okoli said. “I thought it was weird, but at that point, I was still convinced I did not have Ebola.”
The doctors informed Okoli that she had to travel to a separate location to have her blood taken the second time. She informed her family she was going to be treated, while she herself was unsure what she was facing. She sat in an ambulance for four hours without any word from the doctors.
When the doctors returned they informed Okoli that she'd tested positive and would have to be quarantined.
'I am going to survive'
“When I called my parents to tell them I tested positive for Ebola, I told them ‘I don’t know how, but I know I am going to survive,’” Okoli said.
Okoli arrived in the quarantine section of the hospital, a makeshift ward in a section of the hospital previously not in use. She joined nine other doctors who had been infected before her.
For 14 days, Okoli fought.
“The doctor told me and the other patients that there was no cure for Ebola, but the best defense against it was to stay hydrated,” Okoli said.
“We mixed a solution of water and were told to drink at least 5 liters of water each day to make sure we made up for the fluids lost.”
During treatment, Okoli relied on her own medical knowledge to stay as stable as she could. The doctor watching over her and the other nine patients worked at a different hospital and could monitor them only twice a day. Okoli consistently checked her own vital signs and tried to use the water solution to take in as much fluid as was being lost.
Thinking and praying
Okoli said the time in isolation gave her time to think and pray, contemplating a Bible verse that had always resonated with her.
“In 2011, I went to read my Bible and the first passage I opened to was from Jeremiah 29:11,” Okoli said.
“The verse went, ‘For I know the plans I have for you.’ And at that time it jumped out at me. I thought about that verse when I was in the ward.
“I felt that none of this made sense. If I was going to die of Ebola, I would not be able to accomplish what I wanted to in my life. I knew I was meant for more and I was going to survive this.”
After six days, Okoli’s condition stabilized as her body began to retain the fluids she drank. After two weeks of isolation and quarantine, Okoli was able to go home.
On her way out of the hospital, she cut the red ribbon that separated the ward from the outside ward, signifying her transition into the next part of her life.
“As I cut the tape, I felt as though I was walking into a part of my life with new possibilities,” Okoli said. “I had a new zest for life, a new assignment and a new purpose.”
In the weeks following her release, Okoli attended many meetings and talks about Ebola and shared her story through a medical blog she kept.
In November 2014, Okoli came to New Orleans to speak at the conference for the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Public Health, where Gates was set to give a keynote address.
After hearing her story, Gates asked to share it online and featured her in Time.
A future in Nigeria
Okoli enrolled in Tulane's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine to complete her master’s degree in epidemiology. She graduates in May. She said her main goal going forward is to give a voice to those who have survived life-threatening diseases. She said sharing her experience has helped some of the people in her ward come forward to share their stories.
In New Orleans, Okoli has been speaking with undergraduate classes about how these diseases start to spread.
Illnesses like Ebola are diseases of poverty, she said. People in developing countries either cannot afford treatment or don't have access to it.
After completing her studies at Tulane, Okoli plans to move back to Nigeria to continue learning and teaching others how Ebola and other infectious diseases can be prevented. She said the best defense against these diseases is preventing them in the first place.
“Many countries are faced with fear of an outbreak, and that fear comes from things we do not understand,” Okoli said.
“I want to continue to educate people on how you can contract a disease and also explain how you can survive them. Knowledge helps us equip ourselves if an illness starts to spread. It is one thing to treat Ebola, and it is another thing to educate people.”
The Loyola Student News Service features reporters from advanced-level journalism classes at Loyola University New Orleans, directed by faculty advisers.