RowanSOM graduate reflects on his time treating ebola in Africa

RowanSOM graduate reflects on his time treating ebola in Africa

by Kelly Roncace, South Jersey Times

He carried the names of 23 deceased children in his pocket.

Dr. Chuck Callahan, D.O., a 1984 graduate of the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, volunteered his time with the Partners in Health organization in Sierra Leone, Africa, from Dec. 3 to Jan. 12.

"Twenty-three kids I cared for died from ebola," Callahan said. "I carried their names in my pocket."

When the doctor had a spare moment, he visited the cemetery where the children's bodies were buried.

"I visited them," he said. "It gave me some closure. It helped."

Callahan returned to his alma mater on March 30 to share his experiences with fellow doctors, the current staff, and medical students at RowanSOM in Stratford.

"It was unnerving at first," he said, of the idea of working with such a largely infected population. "But you take away as much as you give. I felt it was a blessing to be there. I just can't see the world the same anymore."

Callahan and his wife woke up to the news of the ebola epidemic on Oct. 5.

"It was Sunday morning," he remembered. "There were 145 doctors and 6.8 million people. And ten percent of their physicians died of ebola."

His wife of 31 years encouraged him to go and help.

"So I put my name in and the very next day, Partners in Health contacted me," Callahan said.

Each day of his volunteer service there consisted of suiting up, referred to as "donning," and strategically removing said suit, called "doffing."

"Donning was the process of putting your gear on and it took between 10 and 15 minutes," he said. "Anyone who went into the 'red zone' had to be completely clothed in this outfit."

With medical scrubs as a base layer, Callahan would wear a germ-resistant suit similar to hazmat gear, heavy rubber boots, three sets of gloves - they required two pairs, but Callaham chose to wear three because he was a bit nervous, he said - an Army blanket mask, face shield, beekeepers hood and goggles.

"But we could only wear it for an hour at a time because it was very hot," he said.

Even with the protective gear, doctors had to be extremely vigilant because of the extremely contagious conditions.

"We were constantly counting in 21 days," he said, referring to the incubation period of the virus. "If we bent down and got a rip in our suit, we'd say, 'See ya in 21 days.' If you feel even the least bit nauseous, you think, 'I'm the knucklehead who got ebola.'"

Luckily, aside from the normal side-effects of being in a foreign land, Callahan came home as healthy as when he arrived.

"When I returned home, I had to have my temperature taken by the state for 21 days," he said. "If there was any sign of fever, I would immediately be put into isolation."

While Callahan saw many deaths from ebola during his time in Africa, he also saw a lot of hope.

"Baby J was found in a house where her entire family had died of ebola," Callahan said. "She was younger than a year old."

When the doctor had to leave the tiny patient at the end of his shift, he was sure she wouldn't be there when he returned.

"The next day, she opened her eyes and looked at me," he recalled. "She reached for a cup and drank enough rehydration fluid to help."

Baby J survived ebola and was placed in an orphanage where she could be cared for and, hopefully, adopted.

"She's an example that if we do the right stuff, maybe the mortality rate didn't have to be there high," Callahan said.

Callahan retired from the Army as a colonel in spring 2014 after 30 years of service.

He is currently a professor of pediatrics at the F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine of the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland.

Additional Details:

Date Published: Wednesday, April 1, 2015 - 17:45
Source URL: RowanSOM graduate reflects on his time treating ebola in Africa