Oral Histories of the Ebola Epidemic

Sam Robson is an OHMA alum. In this post, he discusses his experiences as an oral historian at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum, researching the Ebola epidemic.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak devastated communities in West Africa. The virus infected more than 28,600 people, directly taking an estimated 11,320 lives and likely leading to countless other deaths as it shut down healthcare systems in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. It was the first true epidemic of Ebola, spreading across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone with more cases confirmed in other countries inside and outside of Africa, including the United States. It was, in short, a disaster – and were it not for the hard work of thousands of health professionals and everyday people across the globe, it would have been even worse.

Today, widespread transmission of Ebola is over. Reducing cases to nearly zero took an enormous international effort involving multiple governments, NGOs, faith groups, local leaders, private companies, and international agencies. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) served a crucial role, deploying the largest epidemic response in its 70-year history.

“When I was there, we had identified an old training site. It was a Red Cross training facility site where they used to train local staff different skills. They were just abandoned buildings, but they were concrete. I remember going to see the grounds and thinking, we could turn this into something. Sure enough, when I came back the second time, the former training site was set up as an Ebola treatment center for Port Loko District.. . . . To have [name withheld] come over to me and say, ‘We told them everything you said. Everything you said the first time you were here, about how we needed to decentralize and how we needed more ambulances and how this needs to be set up, we told them and they did it.’ I didn’t know, I had no idea that the things that I was saying to them at that time about what I saw and what I thought had to happen in order to make this better would be implemented after I left. That to me was just huge. It felt so good to know that the skills that I brought to the table were utilized and that when the military came and there [were] more resources and more people to put infrastructure in place, that they actually listened to the advice of people who were there before them.”

-Regan Rickert-Hartman, who supported local District Health Management Teams in Sierra Leone

Last October, the David J Sencer CDC Museum hired me to document the effort by collecting oral histories from 150 CDC responders for the Ebola epidemic. Through fall of 2018, I’ll be speaking with a diverse array of responders, from logisticians to lab workers to health communicators. The goal is to archive all the interviews publicly online, and to include snippets in the museum’s 2017 Ebola exhibit.

I got interested in oral histories of health, illness, and disability while in OHMA, specifically while taking Marsha Hurst’s Illness Narratives course in the Narrative Medicine department. I wrote my thesis on interviews I did with people with dementia and their family members, ultimately producing a few short pieces of writing and one-act plays. However, the world of public health wasn’t something I quite understood. Even after I followed my wife Katie to Atlanta so she could attend Emory University for a Master’s in Public Health, words like “epidemiology” and “biostatistics” didn’t mean a lot to me. Had I imagined doing an Ebola oral history project before coming to Atlanta, I would probably have only conceived of interviewing survivors and their friends and family members—and after that, maybe physicians. And this would have been good. As I have learned, amid the hysteria that gripped the U.S. media at the peak of the outbreak, the experiences of people in direct and brutal contact with Ebola were not widely broadcasted.

Public health responders had a large impact on stopping widespread Ebola virus transmission, yet their stories also largely remained untold. In oral history, we think a lot about the relationship between individuals and larger social, cultural, and political structures. When I speak with public health workers at CDC, I speak with people working to impact health structures around the world – systems which determine who is most at risk for developing various ailments and how these ailments spread. It’s a fascinating peek at the lives of people whose work means a great deal to basically everybody. So while it would be amazing to speak with Ebola survivors and those close to them, this too is an important project.

Interviews so far have been fun, educational, diverse, and universally engaging. These are typical 1.5-2 hour interviews, and several have stretched to multiple sessions. I follow the normal oral history method of exploring people’s lives prior to the primary area of interest, and have thereby collected some compelling human portraits. I’ve spoken with an electrical engineer who disinfected an Ebola ward outside Monrovia, a district officer who studied burial transmission, and a Sierra Leonean CDC partner who led outreach to traditional healers. I’ve spoken with people at the top of the organizational command structure and those further down. The interviews have been a great crash course in public health, and it’s been fun reviewing the history and anthropology of West Africa. This is something I love about oral history – the responsibility to become well-versed in whatever subject you investigate. Having earned my BA in African/Diasporic history and MA in health-related oral histories, this project is enjoyably familiar, even though public health was initially foreign to me.

When I arrived in Atlanta, one person was especially welcoming and kind to me: Cliff Kuhn, the late executive director of the Oral History Association. In addition to inviting me on one of his famous history walks and joining me for delicious Indian food, it was he who made the connection between my skills and interests and a certain oral history position at CDC Museum. In the spirit of Cliff, I welcome anyone who visits Atlanta to stop by the CDC Museum and say hi. We can grab lunch or later some drinks and shoot the breeze about Atlanta, oral history, the Ebola epidemic, or whatever else comes to mind.