The doctor prevented the spread of Ebola in Nigeria – and paid with her life. Now we should honour her, and the other health workers whose dedication is inspirational.
Last month, the Nigerian government released the 2014 National Honours award list: more than 300 people, many of them serving government officials, seemingly recognised simply because of the public office they hold, not for anything particularly honourable or heroic. An outcry followed, largely due to the absence of one name: Dr Stella Ameyo Adadevoh. A government spokesman was forced to explain that the awards are never given posthumously.
The public’s indignation was understandable: Adadevoh was the Nigerian doctor who oversaw the treatment of Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian national who brought the Ebola virus to Nigeria. She died of the virus on 19 August, one of eight fatalities out of 20 cases (each linked to Sawyer) in the country. Without her dedication, it is quite possible that the World Health Organisation would not have declared Nigeria – the most populous country in Africa – Ebola-free on Monday. The significance of her actions, and those of her hospital colleagues, cannot be overstated.
According to an account by Ada Igonoh, a young doctor who treated Sawyer – and upon whom it fell to certify him dead – Adadevoh vehemently turned down a request by Sawyer’s employers to have him discharged so he could catch a flight to Calabar, a coastal city 750km from Lagos, where he had been due to attend a conference (we are left to imagine what would have followed had Sawyer been allowed to leave Lagos for Calabar).
Igonoh says that from the moment Adadevoh suspected Sawyer might have Ebola – the Liberian had denied contact with an Ebola patient, even though his sister had died of the virus barely two weeks before his arrival in Nigeria – she quarantined him, made contact with the authorities, and ensured the provision of protective materials and Ebola educational material to hospital staff.
Adadevoh was born in Lagos in October 1956. Her father was Babatunde Adadevoh, a professor of chemical pathology and, between 1978 and 1980, the vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos. Her great-grandfather was the Nigerian nationalist Herbert Macaulay (himself the grandson of Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the first African Anglican bishop). She lived most of her life in Lagos, spending the last 21 years working at the First Consultant hospital in Obalende on Lagos Island, where a statue of Macaulay still stands today.
In a fine tribute, Nigerian journalist Simon Kolawole explained and convincingly that Adadevoh was only doing her job as a medical professional. He wrote: “There were various options in front of her when she discovered Sawyer had Ebola: one, quietly say ‘e no concern me’ and discharge him quickly to avoid contaminating the hospital; two, refer him to [Lagos University Teaching hospital], not minding the bigger consequences for the rest of Nigeria; three, act responsibly in line with the ethics of the medical profession and ‘detain’ him because of the peculiarity of the disease.”
That this needed to be pointed out at all is perhaps testimony to how unused Nigeria has become to the idea of people doing their jobs as they should. It is precisely the reason Adadevoh needs to be honoured: as a reminder that heroism can be attained as much in everyday work clothes as it can in superhero capes.
In September, the Lagos state parliament asked Governor Babatunde Fashola to rename the Infectious Diseases hospital in Lagos – where Adadevoh died – in her memory. There is still time to further recognise Adadevoh’s heroism. No doubt the biggest tribute Nigeria could ever give her would be to create a culture in which devotion and dedication to one’s vocation is habitual.