Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Dr. Allison Amarachukwu Karen, from Imo State in Nigeria. I am 32 years old and I work for the International SOS in a remote site in Ogun State. I am also a fitness enthusiast and an entrepreneur.
How long have you been working as a healthcare worker and what made you choose this career?
I've been a health worker for seven years now. I graduated from the University of Port Harcourt and interned at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital.
The funny thing is that I didn't want to be a doctor as a child. I wanted to study English and teach it, but my parents would have none of that. I have a twin brother and my mother said one of us should be a doctor and that is how they guided me to that path. Initially, I tried to rebel but I'm thankful they stood their ground. Growing up, I always wanted to take care of people, make people feel better and along the line, I realized that I could do that with medicine as well. So, I fell in love with medicine and that’s how I got to be here today.
Do you have any regrets or fears so far?
No. I'll be lying if I told you I have any regrets. But I have fears though. My greatest fear is not realizing my potential to the fullest. That is what drives me to put in the work that has to be put in.
How are you helping your country fight the COVID-19 pandemic?
I didn't know I would diagnose the first case of COVID-19 in Nigeria, but I think that's one of my contributions to the fight.
As a precautionary measure after the diagnosis, I had to isolate myself and be off work for some time. Because of the lockdown measures, I've not been able to travel from one state to another. I try to offer free medical services and advice to people around me and I also use my social media platforms to give accurate information about the preventive and protective measures as per guidelines and protocols laid by our health authorities.
Tell us more about the time you diagnosed the first COVID-19 patient in Nigeria. What made you make that conclusion?
Well, that day 26th February 2020 was like any other day at work. If fact, it was less busy. I was looking forward to going home, have a nice meal and sleep. That was not to be. About 28 minutes before I clocked out at the end of my shift, the index patient walked into my office. He complained of fever, headache, fatigue and muscle pain. On further history-taking, I found out that he had been in Nigeria for just two days. I thought if this was his first time in Nigeria then it cannot be a case of malaria and it was not heat exhaustion either, because I noticed that even after spending some time in my air-conditioned office, his fever had worsened instead.
What was going through your mind that time?
Fortunately, my team and I had just received an updated training on COVID-19 two days prior to his presentation to the clinic. With this knowledge, I knew what was in front of me could be a case of COVID-19, in as much as the patient did not present with the classic symptoms - he had no cough, no sore throat, no difficulty breathing. He didn't offer any history of prior contacts when I asked. My index of suspicion was high and I thought it was better to err on the side of caution and have him isolated and tested.
Did you tell him what was happening?
I calmly told him: “This is what I think you are suffering from”. I gave him a face mask and then I told him I was going to isolate him. He was very cooperative. I quickly washed my hands and wore a face mask before I immediately escalated the case to the International SOS medsite Medical Director, who alerted the appropriate health authorities. The patient was isolated and moved to the Infectious Disease Centre in Lagos the following morning where he tested positive for COVID-19.
How did your colleagues react?
When I told my team members we may be having a case of COVID-19, they were really worried. We decontaminated the area and those of us who had attended to the patient were quarantined for 14 days as a precautionary measure.
Does COVID-19 scare you?
Yes, it does. It scares me because it
is spreads so fast and even though the whole world is fighting it – scientists, big companies, brilliant people –still there is no known cure and a vaccine will take some time. But I still have to do my job because, aside from the oath I took, I'm very passionate about caring for others.
What keeps you going?
My loved ones – my parents and siblings. This is my contribution; I do not have money to give so this is what I can do. I know we will get through this eventually. Yes, times are really rough now and it may be tougher on some people than others but we have to keep hope alive! There is light at the end of the tunnel. My parents encourage me a lot; my mother calls to pray for me and my sister looks up to me. This is what keeps me going, even when I'm scared.
How did you cope during the quarantine?
I spent time reading, doing online courses, exercising and watching movies. I had support from family, friends and my employer.
Different countries have adopted different strategies to beat COVID-19. What in your view has worked and what has not worked?
Preventive measures like using PPE, face masks, social distancing, proper hand washing, respiratory etiquette and lockdown measures have worked. What has not worked are rumours, misinformation and myths about the pandemic. I think adopting a more decentralized approach on the response to COVID-19 will have more impact. Some countries are doing it right now, increasing contact tracing, case management, engaging the community, training the youth and engaging them.
For instance, Nigeria has increased its testing capacity by having multiple labs. Initially, we had to send samples to the central lab to get them tested but now we have multiple labs and we no longer have to wait days to receive results. Also, disseminating accurate information, having sensitization programmes, promoting healthy behavior, and helping each other.
What message do you have for fellow youth in Nigeria and the rest of Africa?
We should keep a positive attitude, keep the hope alive! A lot of things seem uncertain now and you may be wondering how they're going to proceed from here. Whatever dreams and aspirations you have, continue to work towards them. We will get out of this and when we do, you want to be prepared to take the next opportunity. We, the young people, are the ones that are going to continue to build our countries. So, we have a heritage to protect. Just don't stop, keep going and you will get there eventually.
What would you tell other healthcare workers on the COVID-19 frontline?
It may seem pretty dark and scary right now and our job demands a lot of sacrifice. We should just keep putting our hearts into what we're doing – saving lives. This is the time for us to step up and support each other. Don’t forget to protect yourselves because many lives are dependent on you being alive.
One of the issues that is coming up strongly is the issue of stigma. What is your take on this?
I have experienced it myself. To fight it, we should continue to educate and sensitize people on COVID-19. People should also try to be empathetic towards those that have gone through this because they have fought a big battle.
Africa has had its share of misinformation, disinformation and myths around this virus. Why is this the case?
People spread disinformation because they believe it is the truth. There is need to cross-check and fact-check information before sharing it. Go to the appropriate health authorities’ websites and get the correct information or ask a health worker.
In remote areas, or for people who cannot go online, community engagement to sensitize them in their local languages is key, either through direct engagement or radio.
Three ways we can win this war?
Firstly, the world should work together as a team because we have a common goal - winning the war against COVID-19. Secondly, each one of us has a contribution to make by taking the necessary precautions and following health guidelines and protocols laid out. Thirdly, be your brother's keeper. Be mindful of other people, especially the less privileged, the elderly, and those more at risk. It could be as little as helping with grocery shopping or disseminating information.
Your message of hope?
As human beings, we are more resilient than we actually give ourselves credit for. We can do anything as long as we put our minds to it. So, don't give up, no matter how hard it gets.