Ebola: The orphaned child survivors of 'hotel tent'

6 Oct 2014
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Cokie van der Velde, a sanitation specialist with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), has been helping to combat Ebola in Liberia and Guinea. She describes a recent experience with a young, orphaned patient.

“Maybe it was because Samuel has the same name as my son, now a man, or because he is the same age as my eldest grandson, eight, or just because of his ready smile and gentle, friendly nature but something about this little boy captured my heart.

He came with his mother from outside Monrovia, no one knows from exactly where, but when his mother died from Ebola in our treatment centre in the city, called Elwa 3, we had no information about his family and no way to contact them so he ended up in “Hotel tent”.

The residents of Hotel tent

The people in Hotel tent, based inside the centre, are those who are cured and those who have tested negative for the virus but the lab results came in too late in the day to organise transportation home.

They stay overnight in the tent and are then taken home by relatives or in our taxi the next day.

However, more and more often we end up with children whose parents are sick in the treatment centre but the children have not contracted the disease themselves or those whose parents have died and we have no details of extended family or whose family have rejected them through fear of the Ebola virus.

All alone

Samuel fell into the category of orphaned child for whom we could find no relatives. Initially he had the company of a few other children and they seemed to be having great fun playing with each other and with the toys we had found for them.

Slowly the number of children dwindled as relatives were traced until in the end Samuel was sat all alone, no one to play with and no one in the world to love or look after him.

But still there Samuel sat smiling bravely when anyone spoke to him whilst our support unit desperately searched for someone, somewhere to send him. I sat with him and we drew pictures - his smile and laughter infectious and quite amazing considering his circumstances.

We have a no contact policy so I couldn’t even give him a hug but he seemed to enjoy any company no matter how limited. He was a delightful boy - polite, eager to learn and utterly charming.

Many left without a home

Eventually the authorities managed to match him with a person who had survived Ebola but I heard the community they were placed in would not accept their presence due to the fear of Ebola and they had to be moved.

I didn’t see Samuel to say good bye.

One day he was there and the next gone and I try not to think about him. I should know better than to become too fond of anyone who comes to our centre. It makes working here harder and stories of tragedy lay behind all the dead in our morgue.

I make sure I stick to my job, infection control, I check the protocols are observed and make sure as much as possible there is a safe working environment.

Hotel Tent continues to fill with babies and small children and we see only the tip of the iceberg. There must be many more like them in the community who have no one to find them a home.”

This post was originally published on The Independent on 6th October 2014.

Read more about MSF’s Ebola response