Surgeon with Ebola virus dies at Nebraska hospital

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Dr. Martin Salia
Dr. Martin Salia

OMAHA, Neb. — A doctor who spent time treating Ebola patients in West Africa died from the virus Monday. The death of Dr. Martin Salia, who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone, marks the second time Ebola has claimed a victim in the United States.

Salia died at around 3 a.m. MST Monday, according to Nebraska Medicine spokesman Taylor Wilson.

A surgeon and legal permanent resident of the United States, Salia was treating patients in West Africa when he contracted the virus.

Salia arrived Saturday at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. The hospital tweeted Monday that he was “extremely critical” when his treatment began and “unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we weren’t able to save him.”

Salia was suffering from advanced symptoms of Ebola, including kidney and respiratory failure, health officials said.

It is rare for someone to die in the United States from Ebola because medical and monetary resources are extensive — much more so than in West Africa.

The first Ebola patient to die in the United States was Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national who traveled to Texas in September from that West African country that, like Sierra Leone and Guinea, has been hit the hardest by the Ebola epidemic.

Duncan, 42, died at a Dallas hospital. He initially went to the same facility’s emergency room after he began having symptoms, but he was misdiagnosed and sent home. Two days later, he was back in the hospital, where he tested positive for the virus and his treatment began.

Salia split his time between New Carrollton, Md., and Sierra Leone, where he worked at a Methodist hospital, WJZ-TV in Baltimore reported.

The team caring for Salia in Sierra Leone characterized him as critical ill, possibly sicker than patients treated successfully in the United States, according to Nebraska health officials.

The surgeon had taken a test for Ebola, which came back negative, though it’s unclear what produced that false result. A second test came back positive.

Salia’s wife, Isatu Salia, a Maryland resident, pushed to get him evacuated from Sierra Leone, the U.S. State Department said. An air ambulance crew evaluated him in Freetown and determined he was well enough to travel.

Isatu Salia spoke to WJZ over the weekend. Too upset to show her face on camera, she described talking to her husband and feeling incredibly concerned.

“I know he’s sick. He was a little slow talking,” she said.

Breaking down in tears, she said, “I’m worried for him.”

A reporter asked if she was confident her husband would get the treatment he desperately needed. Isatu Salia said that she did and she was “pleased” with the action the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took when she phoned authorities there.

It was an “hour-by-hour situation” when Martin Salia arrived at Nebraska Medical Center, according to Dr. Phil Smith, director of the hospital’s biocontainment unit.

Smith described Salia as “extremely ill” and that “multiple highly trained specialists who are experts in their fields” worked on the surgeon’s most serious needs.

Nebraska Medical Center is one of four U.S. hospitals with a biocontainment unit and staffers who have prepared for years to handle a highly infectious virus such as Ebola. The hospital successfully treated two American Ebola patients — Dr. Rick Sacra, released in September, and Ashoka Mukpo, a freelance NBC cameraman released last month. Both contracted Ebola in Liberia and were later flown to the United States for treatment.

Initially, Salia’s son, Maada Salia, told WJZ that he thought his father was responding to treatment.

The surgeon received a dose of ZMapp therapy, the hospital said, and a blood transfusion from an Ebola survivor.

“We used every possible treatment available,” Smith said Monday.

Maada Salia spoke admiringly of his father as he struggled over the weekend.

“The fact that he would go back to his country and help is one thing that really amazed me because he showed the love that he has for his country,” he said. “He doesn’t think of himself as someone important. He puts himself down and helps those who really need help.”

At least 5,177 people have died of Ebola, most of them in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization. Sierra Leone has reported nearly 1,200 deaths in the outbreak that began this year.

The White House released a statement of condolences to the Salia family. “Dr. Salia dedicated his life to saving others. He viewed this vocation as his calling, telling his fellow United Methodist Church members that he pursued medicine not because he wanted to, but because he firmly believed it was God’s will for him,” the statement reads.

“Dr. Salia’s passing is another reminder of the human toll of this disease and of the continued imperative to tackle this epidemic on the frontlines, where Dr. Salia was engaged in his calling.”

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