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Unfinished Feelings 'Part Of The Deal' For Northwest Nurse Fighting Ebola In Liberia

Marc Bouma
Marc Bouma, left, of Tacoma, and Robert Rains the team logistical expert, after landing at the airport of Zwedru, Liberia. Their mission was to build and staff a new Ebola Treatment Center in this remote town.

Seattle E.R. nurse Marc Bouma is back in the Northwest after treating Ebola patients in a remote part of Liberia.

He said the hardest moments of his work on Ebola came early in his tour.

He was in Liberia for just a month, and during the first week he was stationed in the capital city of Monrovia. That’s when a young boy, his sister and mother all were taken into the health center stricken with Ebola.

“The brother died overnight,” Bouma recalled. “And the little girl was like sleeping next to this dead Ebola patient, that was her brother, and was there and witnessed it.”

His co-worker named Heather came and found them that way. The mother appeared resigned and very sick, and the sister was in shock over her brother’s death.

It was Bouma’s job, then, to take Heather’s account of what had happened at the end of the day. Bouma learned later that both the mother and daughter had perished from Ebola too.

He called that moment “emotionally challenging.” But not in a way that makes him feel hopeless.

“It kind of validated why we were there and what we were doing,” he said.

He felt needed.

‘A way to reinvent myself’

After a week in Monrovia, Bouma was sent with another aid worker to the remote village of Zwedru. They were escorted there by the U.S. Marine Corps.

A small excerpt from his audio journal describes his flight there:

“I’m hanging out the back of a V-22 Osprey. It’s a Boeing-built plane that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane. As the Osprey banks and dodges between mountains and jungle-filled ravines I think to myself how did I get here?”

Bouma’s been doing this kind of disaster aid work around the world for a while. He’s been to Tacloban in the Philippines and Port-au-Prince, Haiti. His first trip was to Nicaragua in 2008, right before he finalized his divorce.

“It was kind of a way to reinvent myself,” Bouma explained. “And kind of find myself. And find my place in the world.”

Bouma said a lot of the aid workers he’s traveled with are searching for something too. Or were untethered to home and family. When they come back, it can be hard to relate.

Even when people ask about what he’s seen, Bouma isn’t sure what to say.

“They don’t really want to know about all the poverty and the horrible things you saw,” he said. “They really are just kind of asking you kind of that polite, social, ‘Oh you were gone for a month in Africa. How was that?’”

So he gives a cleaned-up version. He talks about things that aren’t so grim -- even in his audio diary.

“In my suitcase I carried to Liberia I carried, there were nine pounds of Starbucks Via instant coffee. It’s really the only thing that’s keeping me going here.”

Building a treatment center

Bouma had a vision for his trip that was different than what actually happened.

Credit Marc Bouma
Marc Bouma
The Ebola Treatment Center under construction in Zwedru, Liberia. Bouma and one other volunteer worked with the people of Zwedru to build this center and outfit it with the proper equipment to fight the deadly virus.

He thought he would be working directly with Ebola patients. He volunteered for this tour just when Ebola was exploding in Liberia. Instead, he was sent to work managing the construction of a 20-building Ebola treatment unit. It was being hacked right out of the jungle.

Bouma said he and his co-worker’s main tasks were fixing problems. They had to make sure it got built, order supplies and hire staff and nurses for this new facility.

In just twelve grueling weeks, they had built up the Ebola treatment center. And Bouma had managed the hiring and training of 100 local nurses and technicians. He helped plan the opening ceremony. But the end of his tour in Zwedru was the day before the event.

He didn’t get to see the ribbon cutting.

“Not being able to see that continue and grow. It’s challenging,” he said. “‘Cause you work so hard. We were working 18-hour days almost every day. All of that work and then just leaving it behind and not being able to see it function is challenging. But it’s kind of part of the deal.”

Now, Bouma says his work in Africa is still incomplete. He is planning to embark on another non-profit nursing tour in late March. He’s headed to a refugee camp in Uganda.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.