OMAHA, Neb. — A Maryland Catholic doctor who contracted the Ebola virus while working at a Methodist hospital in the West African nation of Sierra Leone died early Nov. 17 at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha from the virus.
Dr. Martin Salia, 44, was the third Ebola patient to be treated in Omaha, and the first patient to die there. There have been 10 Ebola patients in the United States; two have died.
Salia was working as a general surgeon at Kissy United Methodist Hospital in the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, which is not an Ebola treatment unit.
It was not immediately clear how Salia contracted the virus. But sources at the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation say Salia worked in at least three other medical facilities in addition to Kissy Hospital.
Kissy serves some of Freetown’s poorest neighborhoods. Several units of the hospital, including its surgical wards, were shut down in October when a patient who was admitted to the hospital for other health conditions manifested signs of Ebola. That patient was taken to another hospital in Freetown where he died.
Salia’s infection came several weeks after the 21-day quarantine imposed on all staff who had direct dealings with the patient who died. Kissy Hospital was closed Nov. 11 and a new 21-day quarantine imposed on the hospital staff in the wake of Salia’s Ebola diagnosis.
Salia, a citizen of Sierra Leone who had been living in Maryland, had tested negative Nov. 6 for the Ebola virus, but a second test Nov. 10 was positive. He arrived Nov. 15 in Omaha.
“Salia was extremely critical when he arrived here, and unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we weren’t able to save him,” said a statement form Dr. Phil Smith, medical director of the biocontainment unit at Nebraska Medical Center.
In an interview with United Methodist Communications earlier this year, Salia talked about how important it was for him to work at a Christian hospital.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be rosy, but why did I decide to choose this job? I firmly believe God wanted me to do it. And I knew deep within myself. There was just something inside of me that the people of this part of Freetown needed help,” Salia said.
“I see it as God’s own desired framework for me. I took this job not because I want to, but I firmly believe that it was a calling and that God wanted me to. … And I’m pretty sure, I’m confident that I just need to lean on him, trust him, for whatever comes in, because he sent me here. And that’s my passion,” Salia said.
“Whenever we want to start surgery, we pray. I am just being used as an instrument or as a surgeon to carry out God’s own plan for that person’s life,” he added.
“We’re very grateful for the efforts of the team led by Dr. Smith,” said a statement from Salia’s wife, Isatu. “In the short time we spent here, it was apparent how caring and compassionate everyone was. We are so appreciative of the opportunity for my husband to be treated here and believe he was in the best place possible.”
News reports said the couple made their home in New Carrollton, Maryland, a suburb of Washington. They have two sons, a 12-year-old and a 20-year-old. Maada Salia told NBC News in a recent interview that despite the risks posed by Ebola, his father “decided to still go and help his people because he wanted to show that he loves his people. He’s really, really a hero to me.”
Salia is the sixth doctor in Sierra Leone to be infected with the virus. The other five doctors also died.
Tributes poured in about Salia upon his death.
“It’s another sad day with challenges uncounted,” said a Nov. 17 statement from Ishmeal Charles, who is program manager for the Healey International Relief Foundation in Sierra Leone and works directly with Caritas, the Vatican’s international aid agency, in the Archdiocese of Freetown.
“Sierra Leone, a country with limited medical professionals, keeps losing our valuable human capacity. Dr. Martin Salia is not just an ordinary doctor but an unstoppable personality,” added Charles, a former child soldier who testified in September about the Ebola crisis at a U.S. Senate hearing. “He is now gone in the midst of this fight. I and many others see him as an hero. We love and greatly miss Dr. Martin Salia.”
“Dr. Salia was a dedicated Christian physician who was living out a calling to serve others. We are inspired by his faith and by other health care workers like him around the world who provide medical care to those who might not otherwise have care, even at risk to themselves,” said a Nov. 17 statement from Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops.