COVID-19 in Burkina Faso: “We should not claim victory early, but instead we should move step by step.”
Dr. Eudoxie Koumbem had been working with ALIMA/SOS Medecins BF/KEOOGO for just a few weeks, when a young woman was brought to the hospital where she worked. The 38-year-old patient, from a neighbouring country, was living in a vulnerable situation in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. She was taken to be tested for the coronavirus.
While the woman was negative for the virus, she was extremely sick, suffering from breathing problems. Unable to recover and with no family or friends for support, Dr. Koumbem sat by her bedside encouraging the woman not to give up.
“She told me she had a 9-year-old son. I told her to fight for her child and to fight to stay alive,” said Koumbem, hanging her head. “She was very young and she still had her life ahead of her.”
Despite all the care provided, the woman did not survive.
Helping to heal patients is one of the reasons why Dr. Koumbem has dedicated herself to a career as a doctor. Today, the 28-year-old physician is taking on a challenge she never imagined: the arrival of COVID-19.
In April, Dr. Koumbem joined ALIMA/SOS Médecins BF/KEOOGO on the frontlines to fight against the coronavirus.
“It was a way for me as a doctor to help the country in the fight against this disease and eradicate it,” she said.
While she’s treated infectious diseases before, such as Dengue fever, Dr. Koumbem’s never worked in an emergency response or on something as contagious.
Sitting in the triage tent outside of Tengandogo – the main hospital designated for coronavirus patients in Ouagadougou – Dr. Koumbem smiles, remembering how terrified she was on her first day.
“I was posted to the emergency ward and I was anxious and afraid,” she said. While she had been recently trained how to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), she was worried the first few times she put on and took off the PPE. While it’s become second nature now, initially one of the hardest things to adjust to was wearing the mask all day.
“At the beginning it was difficult to breathe,” she said.
As ALIMA/SOS Medecins/KEOOGO’s supervising doctor for triage in the emergency ward, Dr. Koumbem must find solutions so that patients receive the best care. Something that’s been personally challenging, is overcoming the stigma that comes with working on the frontlines, as well as the fear of infecting those around her.
When she started working at the hospital, Dr. Koumbem moved into a separate house on the family compound so she wouldn’t risk contaminating her mother, who is asthmatic, or her brother, who lives with them. Even though her family is supportive, the community at first was skeptical, and hesitant, especially the people in her neighborhood who learned of her work.
But Dr. Koumbem persisted, informing people about the coronavirus and explaining how to protect themselves. After a few weeks when they saw that Koumbem and her family were healthy, they relaxed, she explained.
Dr. Koumbem thinks the key to coming through the pandemic is solidarity, especially among health personnel. As countries start relaxing restrictions, Dr. Koumbem warns that people must remain vigilant and remember that things can change in an instant.
“This is a very contagious disease,” she said. “We should not claim victory early, but instead we should move step by step.”
Photos: © Sam Mednick / ALIMA