Salome Karwah, a nursing assistant from Liberia, lived through one of the worst horrors known to mankind.
In 2014, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, as most of us safely watched from a distance in the U.S., Karwah watched as the disease claimed the lives of her mother, father, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and one niece.
But Karwah, despite having Ebola herself, survived the deadly virus. And after she recovered, she dedicated herself to treating not just her only sister, Josephine Manley, who also survived, and her fiancé-turned-husband, James Harris, but many other victims of Ebola in the country.
While it has never been formally tested, it would appear that survivors of Ebola cannot catch it again. So Karwah returned to the same hospital that she had stayed in, and worked with patients suffering from Ebola in the most hands-on way possible: spoon-feeding them nourishment, taking their vital signs, and holding babies whose tiny bodies were no match for the horrors of the disease.
Ebola is something that still makes me shudder; a virus straight out of a sci-fi movie — transmitted by the smallest particle of air and leaving victims vomiting, expelling their bowels, and bleeding out of every orifice of their bodies. Most people would run as far away from Ebola as possible, but Karwah ran towards it, hoping to help.
“I can do things that other people can’t,” she told Time. “If an Ebola patient is in his house, and his immediate relative cannot go to him, I can go to him. I can take [care of] him.”
For her work fighting against Ebola, Karwah was named as one of Time’s People of the Year in 2014. Often joking that she had “super powers” because she had survived Ebola, it is even more sobering and shocking to learn of the even greater danger that eventually took Karwah’s life last month at the age of only 28:
In a world where Ebola makes headlines in our living rooms, on our phones, and in our daily lives, the danger that claims even more lives on a minute-by-minute basis goes largely unnoticed.
According to the World Health Organization, 830 women die every single day from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes. That’s one woman every 90 seconds, guys. That’s insane. In Liberia alone, 980 women died in only one year from childbirth-related causes.
Indirectly and tragically, Ebola does impact the maternal morbidity rate, making it even worse, not because pregnant women were necessarily dying of Ebola, but because they are either:
- Too afraid to go to the hospital to get treated and risk catching Ebola or
- Unable to get care at all because too many caregivers are busy taking care of Ebola patients.
But as dangerous as Ebola is, for many women in developing countries, childbirth is an everyday threat that goes largely unnoticed.
Pregnancy and birth are “natural,” right? Well, yes. But technically, so is Ebola, every other virus and bacterium known to the human race, and well, death. “Natural” does not mean not dangerous.
Karwah died on February 19, 2017, only a day after returning home from delivering her fourth child, a son she and Harris named Solomon, who was born via a C-section. Karwah may have had to have the C-section due to the fact that she had very high blood pressure during her pregnancy, a symptom of preeclampsia, which can be a deadly condition for both mom and baby.
Only a few hours after she was home, Karwah started having convulsions and began foaming at the mouth. Her husband and sister quickly rushed her to the Christian-charity run hospital, Eternal Love Winning Africa, where Karwah worked, but Karwah’s legacy as the “Ebola survivor” only served as a death sentence for her.
All of the healthcare workers at the hospital knew who she was and refused to touch her out of fear that her bodily fluids would contain the virus.
Karwah’s heartbroken husband spoke of trying in vain to get her help as he struggled to get her out of the car and into a wheelchair through her convulsions, while a callous doctor browsed Facebook on her phone.
“They said she was an Ebola survivor,” Manley told Time after her sister’s death. “They didn’t want contact with her fluids. They all gave her distance. No one would give her an injection.”
Despite the years of her life she had spent dedicated to helping others with the deadly virus, in unimaginable bodily horrors, no one would help Karwah. And perhaps even more heartbreaking, no one knows what Karwah actually died from.
Although the hospital workers feared it was Ebola, it’s more likely than Karwah succumbed to a complication related to her high blood pressure — seizures and foaming of the mouth are both signs of eclampsia, which can continue even after the baby is born.
It’s also possible she may have developed an infection or complication from her C-section. Her second youngest child, Destiny, was only a year old when she delivered Solomon, so it’s entirely possible that her uterus was weakened from her previous birth.
Liberia has a maternal morbidity rate of 770, meaning 770 women die per 100,000 live births; the U.S. has a rate of 21. Considering the disparity in economic, social, and cultural resources available in the U.S., the rates are really shocking when you think about it.
So what exactly is so dangerous about giving birth across the world? Women die in childbirth across the world for many different reasons. The WHO notes that the majority of maternal deaths are related to:
- bleeding, primarily after childbirth
- post-delivery infections
- high blood pressure
- delivery complications
- unsafe abortions
It’s sobering to hear of Karwah’s death to a preventable factor, especially in light of the incredible, life-saving work she had accomplished. As NPR pointed out, Karwah was a woman who survived civil war and Ebola, but even her superpowers couldn’t save her from the dangers of giving birth in a developing country.
To learn more or help to donate to maternal health, you can visit care.org.