"Oh shit, we are too late!"

Anja Wolz

© Sylvain Cherkaoui / Cosmos

We reach Anja Wolz in her office in Kailahun, a small town in the east of Sierra Leone with 20,000 inhabitants. The connection is a bit rusty. But Wolz, 44 years old, does not seem to mind that; she knows that. The former nurse from Würzburg was already working around the world for "Doctors Without Borders": In Haiti, in Libya or Somalia. Wolz is in a good mood, laughs a lot. From time to time she sprinkles some English words in her answers because she does not come up with the German ones.

ChroniquesDuVasteMonde: Ms. Wolz, you have been in Sierra Leone for six weeks. Can you still remember what it was like when you arrived?

Anja Wolz: Yes. When I arrived in Kailahun, I first drove to our monitoring station and talked to relatives. A man told me that his wife and child had died of Ebola. And I just stood there thinking, "Oh shit, we're too late!"

Have you blamed yourself?

No, no blame. We do what we can, but we have too few employees. We are talking about a region with 470,000 inhabitants. At the moment, four emergency teams are finding new patients for us. Four teams - it's frustrating! If we had 100 Ebola experts, we would have come soon, then fewer people would have died. We are running after the outbreak.

How do you want to catch up?

The most important thing is to inform people. There is a lot of ignorance. When I arrived, we formed a task force with Ministry of Health staff, village elders, and religious leaders. Everyone thought they knew what Ebola was. But then many questions came up: will Ebola be transmitted by monkeys? Of mosquitoes? Can I swim in a river where an Ebola patient was swimming? And and and...

And how do you explain to the ignorant what Ebola is?

We do not say that Ebola is deadly. That would only cause panic. We say that Ebola is very contagious and is transmitted through bodily fluids. It is always said that you can not treat Ebola. Yes that's true. But we can treat the symptoms. We can save lives if the patients come to us in time.

Anja Wolz working at the treatment center in Sierra Leone by Doctors Without Borders

© Kjell Gunnar Beraas - MSF

How many people have you treated since your arrival?

Our treatment center has been open for four weeks. 130 patients with suspected Ebola have come to us since then. 98 of them tested positive and until yesterday 57 of them died.

130 patients, that's not very much. Why is it that so few patients come to you?

Many people are afraid. Some think that we knock patients' heads off. That we poison them with the chlorine that we use for disinfection. In some villages it has happened that patients hide and ambulances are thrown with stones. There are many rumors.

Can you understand this fear?

Yes. You have to imagine, the villages are sometimes very isolated. At the beginning, it was said that Ebola was transmitted by a snake. Just because a snake had crawled out of the pocket of a woman who died of Ebola. And then you have to go into that. We do not say: That's nonsense!


We try to win the trust of the population. Therefore, we first send local staff to the villages that speak their language.

Is this your most difficult assignment so far?

Yes. In March and April I was already in Guinea. At that time, I had hoped that we would be able to contain the outbreak. But I was wrong. It's the worst Ebola bet I've ever made.

Can one get used to the suffering?

No never. I know the families, I see them die. Children. Pregnant women. That weighs a lot.

How do you handle that?

I have my barrier. Of course, the patients grow to my heart; but I do not go home and cry. I am sad, yes, and sometimes, when we have lost someone, I also yell at my colleagues: How can this be possible ?! But: I know for sure, we have done everything. There are also nice moments.

Which one?

Three days ago we released a little girl, it laughed, it was healthy. That gives you strength back. Or when people come to you and thank you. Without us, the death rate would not be 60 percent. But at 90 percent.

Are you afraid of getting infected?

No. I always say to our employees: "If you are afraid, you are in the wrong place."

That sounds very clarified.

I know, I know. I'm sorry! But I have thought about it for a long time. I have been working for "Doctors Without Borders" for eleven years.And I know that when I'm scared, mistakes happen to me.

Have you ever had an error?

Yes. Once it happened to me that I put on my protective suit and forgot my glasses. But I did not even get two meters. Because we always go in pairs. "Buddy System" we call it "I take care of you, you pay attention to me, I give my life into your hands."

Who are you talking about?

With my dad on the phone. And there is a psychologist, Doctors Without Borders, whom I can call around the clock.

When did you last call the psychologist?

When I came back from Guinea in May.

And what did you tell him?

It was all about frustration. The thought that you are not doing enough even though you work 15, 16 hours a day.

What do you notice when you have crossed your inner barrier?

If I feel: I can not make any decisions now. When I get too emotional. When I get tired. Then I say: I can stay another two or three days. But please, find someone who can come.

Are you feeling tired now?

No not yet. My commitment lasts another two weeks. Then I drive home to Würzburg and have three weeks vacation. I love Würzburg. Nothing changes. Everything stays the same.

And then?

After that I would like to come back again. I think we'll be here for at least another three or four months until we contain Ebola. Before we finish our mission, we must have treated the last patient.

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Ebola, Ebola epidemic, Doctors Without Borders, Sierra Leone, West Africa, Würzburg, Guinea, Haiti, Somalia