All her life Olivet Buck wanted to be a doctor. No medical school existed in her home country of Sierra Leone and her parents couldn’t afford to send her for training abroad. So she became a teacher – and gained great respect during the 20 years she spent in this role. But when a medical school started in Freetown she left her teaching profession to join the College of Medicine in pursuit of her long-held vocation. Graduating in 2000 she worked as one of only two doctors posted to Lumley Government Hospital, dismissing the possibility of private work, with its better pay and working conditions, rather choosing full-time work in the public sector.
When the Ebola epidemic came to Freetown Olivet took a front-line role. She and her colleagues asked for personal protective equipment, but were informed that it was not available. Together they made the courageous decision to go to work anyway, treating infectious patients with minimal equipment rather than abandoning them to isolated suffering and likely death. Every day she and her colleagues made that choice, and now that choice has taken its toll. On Wednesday morning 10th September she was tested positive for the Ebola virus. Though two nearby treatment centres were closed to new patients she was eventually able to get good local care – but her deterioration was rapid and she died three days later. Desperate pleas to the UK government and WHO for her medical evacuation failed, and she paid the highest price of selfless service.
Olivet is by no means the first healthcare worker in Sierra Leone to be struck down by Ebola; she has become the fourth specialist medical physician to have died in the Freetown area alone, and at least 60 nurses have died through their commitment to care for Ebola victims and their families. Currently the health service staff are terrified and feel forgotten. Each member of their team lost to this awful disease makes returning to work more difficult. Saving the life of Olivet would have been a brilliant achievement not only for her, her husband and four children, but for the future of the health system in Sierra Leone. Sadly, she is no longer there to continue her critical work of training the next generation of doctors and providing wisdom and insight when the health system is eventually rebuilt.
Dr Buck will be remembered as a pivotal member of the national medical community in Sierra Leone, as an executive member of Sierra Leone Medical and Dental Council, as Secretary of the Christian Medical Association of Health Workers, and as an active member of the Mothers’ Union. She was a mentor to the next generation of doctors making them much more likely to remain in their home country than to emigrate abroad. Her passion for teaching compassionate medicine brought her into PRIME where she had recently become the lead PRIME tutor for Sierra Leone. Her first overseas visit ever was to PRIME’s annual conference in March this year where everyone was captivated by her warmth, passion and dedication.
From her Christian faith she had learned that ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’1 Olivet laid down her life, not just for her friends, but for people in desperate need whom she barely knew.
As a doctor, I have often wondered what I would do when faced with a person infected with Ebola. I hope I would be brave enough to show compassion even when I was risking my life, though I wouldn’t know until it happened.
Olivet rose to the challenge.
Her life and her passionate commitment serve as a shining inspiration to us all.
Adapted from an original article by Gemma Sheridan MB ChB, MRCS(Ed), MRCOG
1 John 15:13