One slip...A momentary lapse | New Details About How Sheik Humarr Khan Died

Dr. Modupeh Cole's casket is carried to his final resting place on Sunday, August 17

Sheik Humarr Khan died on Tuesday, July 29, 2014 after falling ill earlier the same week while overseeing Ebola treatment at Kenema Government Hospital, about 185 miles east of Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown.

 "Dr. Khan was an extremely determined and courageous doctor who cared deeply for his patients," Doctors Without Borders said in a statement. "His work and dedication have been greatly appreciated by the medical community in Sierra Leone for many years. He will be remembered and missed by many, especially by the doctors and nurses that worked with him. MSF's sincere thoughts and condolences are with Dr. Khan's family, friends and colleagues."

Khan was reportedly meticulous in donning personal protection eqipment (PPE), and believed that the only transmission vector of ebola was close contact. Six weeks before his death he gave a wide-ranging interview to Politico May 18, 2014. Here's what he said about precaution:

"All what I am saying is somebody has to be vigilant, keep up your guard and make sure we all adhere to the universal precautions. Don’t forget the disease of itself is not airborne. I am not afraid of working. It is all about contact, it is all about bodily fluids. If we continue the same universal precautions then we could be in the better position to save ourselves."

Despite keeping to all recommended procedures  Khan died of Ebola-related complications. Some said the good doctor's habit of hugging the "presumably cured" Ebola patients that were leaving his ward, to lift their spirits,  may have been the infection vector leading to his death. But new details have emerged about how Dr. Khan got Ebola. The story was supplied by a friend of the Khan family based in Lungi. Minkailu Jalloh is a retired engineer recently returned home after decades with IBM. Ms. Khan told Jalloh the story.

One evening in July, Dr. Khan had just returned home from yet another long 12-hour shift at the Kenema Government Hospital. Someone came to see him with a health complaint. She was the wife of a professional colleague. The woman said she was feeling feverish and Dr. Khan jumped to examine her--feel her tonsils, neck and jaws. Khan gave the woman a few tablets for cold relief and asked her to see him in the morning if the fever persisted. 

Doctors say when you have a cold (another viral infection) it's not uncommon for the glands, or lymph nodes, in your neck or under your chin to swell. Lymph nodes are a critical part of your immune system, and when you get sick, they expand because they're producing more cells that make protein particles that target invaders like viruses and other virus-fighting cells to help you beat the infection. However, it's important for doctors to be sure that they didn't misdiagnose that cold in the first place, because reactive lymphadenopathy occurs with all kinds of infections. 

"Note, the reaction was instant because she was somebody they all hung out with in their professional crowd," Jalloh wrote.

Moreover, Dr. Khan defined empathy. He never hessitated in letting his patients know that he understood their thoughts and feelings and why patients of this caring doctor lived. Khan is credited with treating over 100 patients before succumbing to the Ebola virus and was recognized as a "national hero" by Sierra Leone's Health ministry.

Later, Khan told his sister that as soon as the patient left, the awful realization dawned on him. He'd done a routine medical check on a patient without gloves. So he telephoned her to come over to the clinic in the morning to test for Ebola. A week later, the unnamed woman and her husband died of Ebola-related complications. 

Dr. Khan gave his sister the somber news and also told her that hunger was killing most of the Ebola patients at the center. The nurses were not keen on getting close enough to the patients to feed them, he said.  Just the other day he had asked his personal help (who kept a steadfast vigil a few yards from Khan's sickbed window) to get him "jelly," as young coconuts are called in Sierra Leone. The help brought back 70 jelly coconuts and Khan poured the clear liquid inside the young green coconuts into Tutik (name of local mineral water company) plastic bottles. Dr. Khan told his sister he drank a whole bottle at one go. That was the last conversation they had. Khan never called his sister back. 

"His valiant work will not be forgotten," Dr. Penninah Iutung Amor, AIDS Healthcare Foundation's Africa bureau chief, said in a statement. "In a country that has fewer than 200 medical doctors in its entire public health sector, the loss of even one doctor is a loss too great."

A University of Sierra Leone graduate, Khan worked for the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, including as head of the Lassa fever program at Kenema Government Hospital, according to the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium. While in that latter post, Khan contracted with the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, consulted with the World Health Organization/Tulane University on its Mano River Union Lassa fever network and was physician-in-charge of his hospital's HIV/AIDS program.

Khan headed the Kenema Government Hospital's Lassa fever program and was a lecturer at the University of Sierra Leone. The Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium described him as "one of the world's leading experts in the clinical care of viral hemorrhagic fevers" -- among them, Ebola.

Dr Modupe Cole, a senior physician at the country`s main referral facility, Connaught Hospital, was also infected after treating a patient who died, the ministry of Health and Sanitation said last Saturday. He was laid to rest today.

"What a price to pay for one instinctive response?," said Pede Hollist.  "And how hard it must be for ordinary folks to rewire themselves to not instinctively reach out to a sick family and friend."


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