Dr Bukenya’s decision to treat Ebola patients troubled family

Dr Henry Bukenya (left) and Dr Gerald at new Kaweeri Mubende  Ebola treatment unit. PHOTO/ BARBRA NALWEYISO

What you need to know:

  • On January 11, the country declared an end to an Ebola virus outbreak that had emerged almost four months earlier and claimed the lives of 55 people.
  • In this fifth instalment of our series, Dr Henry Bukenya, 28, shares the story of how he decided to join the teams treating patients without informing his family members, which bothered his mother. 

When the Ebola disease was detected in Mubende and Kassanda districts in September 2022, several health workers were deployed to the Ebola treatment centres. But even with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), working on the frontline still exposed them to the risk of infection.

One of those frontline workers is Dr Henry Bukenya, a 28-year-old healthcare personnel at Bombo Military Hospital in Bombo.
Dr Bukenya was a member of 75 medical personnel who were deployed in Mubende by the Ministry of Health to beef up the numbers in the Ebola epicentre on October 20 and his workstation was in the Mubende isolation unit. When the numbers of infection of the Sudan strain Ebola virus peaked in October, the fear also rose.

For Dr Bukenya, the decision to treat Ebola patients was arrived at without the knowledge of his family who he says would have disapproved. It was a very challenging decision to take as he had some fears considering the kind of risk he was going to undertake but later understood that it is his call to save people’s lives. His decision however bothered his family, especially his mother.
“None of our families were feeling good, they were all scared. The moment I told my mum that I am in Mubende she cried and wanted me to return back but that is my calling,” he said.
Bukenya emphasises that being in an Ebola treatment unit is very risky. If someone doesn’t take extra care they can end up getting infected. Indeed last year during the outbreak, about 19 medical personnel tested positive and seven of them died. He says they were constantly in contact with Ebola patients.

“We used to work in shifts and at times there would be no personal protective equipment (PPEs) that suit you. I’m not saying that we did not have enough PPEs but the size differs. Some people were big, others small.
“The PPEs were in plenty but most of them were in large size yet many of us couldn’t fit in them. In a situation where there are no PPEs, of course we couldn’t enter the Ebola treatment ward. We had to wait until we got the sizes that fit but as you know government procurement takes long,” he says.

This made some doctors work extra hours despite the fact one should not put the coveralls, masks, face shield, goggles, gloves and respirators used while in the Ebola treatment unit, for more than two hours because of the heat they induce.
“Wearing those PPEs for a long time can cause headache, extreme sweating and difficulty in breathing. It carries a lot of heat that’s why we are always encouraged to rehydrate,” he says.      

Dr Henry Bukenya on duty. PHOTO/FILE

While in the treatment unit, Dr Bukenya recalls scary moments associated with attending to a patient in a pool of blood and seeing someone dying yet he could not do anything to help. This affected him psychologically.

“You could find one patient in a pool of blood, pool of vomit and pool of stool. So it was so scary. At first it was so difficult to adapt and even to go on with the management but, you sit down and say ‘What can I do?’’ he narrates.
In such difficult circumstances the doctor says he did not forget his oath but there were instances when he was unable to save his patients especially those who presented at late stages.

 “It is very painful when you see you cannot do much for a patient. A patient has come in, in what we call a wet stage, what we call emission. You would have helped but you cannot do anything much. You try to do as much as you can but all the patient’s organs have already been damaged,” he says.

 The medical workers had to attend to patients, who were vomiting, bleeding in openings and had bloody diarrhoea or urine. This experience came at the cost of the health worker’s psychosocial wellbeing.
 “We had a team which was helping with psychosocial counselling to make us mentally stable but there were moments we couldn’t forget easily, which continued troubling us,” Dr Bukenya recalls. 
He says he has at times failed to sleep and has hallucinated about the events that happened in the ward.

The doctor also says he now does not eat many types of food because of what he has gone through. Food like beef, liver, or anything related to the colour red, and pumpkin because it has a yellowish look, makes him feel like he is in an Ebola treatment centre all over again.
 Despite the challenges he went through, Dr Bukenya does not regret his decision to come to Mubende and since it was his first time to treat Ebola patients, it has given him experience. Practically working on things he has only read about has enabled him to get better at his job, and the joy of seeing his patients recover is unexplainable.

 “Most of the stuff we dealt with, we read about in books. So you come to boost your medical experience and then to become a specialist or a skilled person in that field,” he says.
 He however adds that sometimes he felt like giving up because of challenges associated with delayed payments, disappointments and false promises made by government health officials during their deployment in Mubende.

The numbers of infection eventually reduced in December last year. With that, the number of health care workers was also reduced to only four doctors at the Ebola treatment unit. These eventually left the place on Wednesday January 18, a week after the declaration of the country being Ebola free. This was when the Ebola treatment centre was closed. 
Despite the challenges, Dr Bukenya is glad for what he was able to do. His and the other doctors’ commitment, efforts and determination to save lives did not go to waste.


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