On Monday, March 23, 2020, Bongolo had it’s first suspected COVID-19 case. A patient came through the checkpoint station with a fever, a cough and shortness of breath. The patient also reported being exposed to a couple of people from Libreville while at a gathering in the interior of the country. Libreville, the capital city of Gabon, currently has 7 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Dr. Renée Valach, the medical director of Bongolo, oversaw the response and treatment for this patient. The recent move of the Ophthalmic Center has freed up space to dedicate a quarantine area for COVID-19 patients. The old eye clinic is near the main hospital and, due to the perfect timing of the move, was unoccupied and able to be transformed into a self-contained quarantine area.
Dr. Renée called the phone number to report a suspected case which is a contact of a physician at the military hospital in Libreville. He said he would call back. That day we were experiencing problems with the cell phone network, and several hours later the return call was from none other than the Minister of Health for the country of Gabon. Unfortunately, that call was also interrupted because of the network problems. Later that day Dr. Renée was able to speak with the Regional Health Director for the province. He went to the patient’s village where he found and interviewed the two people who had traveled from Libreville. He found they had actually been in the area for two months, well before COVID-19 arrived in Gabon.
Meanwhile, the Bongolo staff, led by Dr. Renée, quarantined the patient and began to treat the patient with medical equipment designated just for that patient. After hearing back from the Regional Director of Health that it is not likely a case of COVID-19, the hospital staff decided to continue the treatment in quarantine. We’re pleased to report that, at this time, the patient is recovering well.
Dr. Renée said that this first suspected case has allowed the hospital a “dry run” to see what worked well and what needs improvement. She is debriefing with the staff on how they can continue to learn and grow from this experience. Bongolo will have a few simulated cases in various departments to sharpen everyone’s skills and practices.
Several changes have been made to the Bongolo Hospital campus in light of the pandemic. The road that runs through the campus has been closed to stop traffic at either side. Six new hand washing stations have been placed throughout the hospital. Crowd control measures have helped to limit the flow of people to two hospital entrances where everyone is screened with a temperature check and questions on travel history and exposure to sick people.
The government of Gabon has temporarily closed international borders including all passenger flights. They have also closed schools, churches, and businesses, as well as imposing a curfew from 7:30pm to 6am. Gatherings of over 10 people are prohibited and there must be a distance of one meter between individuals. Cars and taxis are limited to three people, and because of this the local police have taken away the documents of most of the local taxmen for violating the rule. The hospital’s Administrator, Pasteur Serge Batouboko, is driving his personal vehicle every day to transport hospital staff between Lébamba and Bongolo.
Bongolo is bracing for the impact of COVID-19. When it arrives, it will greatly stretch the staff, both local and international. Bongolo does not have an ICU or available ventilators. Dr. Renée and the other doctors on staff have met and discussed the statistics from other areas around the globe ahead of Gabon. She shared, “according to current statistics, of those that get sick, 80% will get sick and recover, 20% will be very sick- and up to 5% of those will likely die- these statistics represent our friends in this community.” Though the number of cases in this country are low at this moment, many in our surrounding communities do not have refrigerators or a consistant supply of water and electricity in their homes. Multiple generations live under one crowded roof. Once this impacts our area, life will become even more challenging than usual.
In the midst of these preparations Dr. Renée has been reading and drawing strength from the book of Isaiah, chapter 43, verses 1-3 (NLT), “… Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…” Please pray for Bongolo, the medical staff, hospital employees and beyond, for such a time as this. As the Gabonese often say, “On est ensemble!” – We are together!
Written by Alace Straw, Photography by Ulrich ILema