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Ebola Gatekeeper: 'When The Tears Stop, You Continue The Work'

Wencke Petersen, a Doctors Without Borders health worker, talks to a man through a chain link gate in September, when she was doing patient assessment at the front gate of an Ebola treatment unit. "There were days we couldn't take any patients at all," she tells NPR.
Wencke Petersen, a Doctors Without Borders health worker, talks to a man through a chain link gate in September, when she was doing patient assessment at the front gate of an Ebola treatment unit. "There were days we couldn't take any patients at all," she tells NPR.
A little girl, Maru, 3, waited with her mother, Tita, 26, outside the ELWA  Doctors Without Borders Ebola treatment center in early October, hoping to get inside. At the time, the treatment center in Paynesville, Liberia, was filled to capacity and could only take in as many new patients as had died overnight.
John Moore / Getty Images
A little girl, Maru, 3, waited with her mother, Tita, 26, outside the ELWA Doctors Without Borders Ebola treatment center in early October, hoping to get inside. At the time, the treatment center in Paynesville, Liberia, was filled to capacity and could only take in as many new patients as had died overnight.

Wencke Petersen came to Liberia in late August to do what she normally does for Doctors Without Borders in hotspots all over the world — manage supplies.

But the supplies she was meant to organize hadn't arrived yet. So she was asked to help with another job: standing at the main gate of the walled-in compound, turning people away when the unit was full.

For five weeks, she gave people the bad news.

Petersen says there are some people she will never forget — like the man who sat in the rain all day, waiting. "We had no space — he just asked for a place to lie down," she says. "At the end of the day I could take him in ... he died two days later."

Other people died in front of the gate, still waiting to get in.

Petersen finished that stint in Liberia in early October; now she's back in the country again. These days there are fewer cases in Monrovia — but still many cases in rural areas, where people can't reach an Ebola treatment unit.

So this time, Petersen is no longer at the front gate; she's back at her old job, managing supplies.

Click on the audio link above to hear more about Petersen's experience being forced to turn away the ill.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.