At a time when many Americans are panicking about the Ebola virus, a Duluth doctor is about to spend six months in the epicenter of the crisis.
Dr. Douglas Wendland, a physician at the St. Luke’s Occupational Health Clinic in West Duluth, will leave later this month for World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Days later, he’ll be in Sierra Leone, one of three West African countries hardest hit by the deadly virus.
There, the WHO has tapped him to help guide Sierra Leone through the crisis as national coordinator of occupational health and safety.
“I believe that with this kind of problem the best approach is to attack it where it’s at and not try to hide from it,” Wendland, 63, said on Friday as he explained his decision to answer the call during an interview at the Denfeld Clinic.
Wendland, who comes across as low-key and self-effacing, calmly discussed the challenges ahead as he sat at a conference table along with a couple of his colleagues.
He won’t be working directly with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, he said. Instead, Wendland will be responsible for the health and safety of anybody working with Ebola patients, such as outreach workers identifying Ebola cases, home health care professionals, ambulance drivers and funeral workers.
“Health care facilities, actually, in terms of worker protection I think are doing a pretty good job - the ones that are still open,” he said.
Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war that ended in 2002 devastated the country’s health care system, Wendland explained. Most remaining facilities closed under the onslaught of Ebola; the existing facilities largely were established by outside agencies.
That means many people in the countries hit hardest by Ebola - Liberia and Guinea as well as Sierra Leone - are diagnosed and cared for at home. In Liberia, for example, only 20 percent of Ebola patients are treated in health care facilities.
Wendland is traveling to Sierra Leone at a time when the crisis seems to be escalating. As of Wednesday, 8,973 Ebola cases had been reported in the three West Africa nations, resulting in 4,484 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For Sierra Leone, the numbers were 3,252 cases and 1,183 deaths.
But some health officials project 10,000 new cases a week will be reported by the end of November, Wendland said.
Wendland, who is married and has seven grown children, acknowledged he is placing himself at risk with a six-month stay in the midst of all that. But the danger is manageable, he said.
“I think the risk can be decreased enough so that I feel comfortable going there,” he said, then added with a chuckle: “Not completely comfortable going there.”
That Wendland is accepting the call is typical of his willingness to serve, said Toni Drake, the clinic’s coordinator for occupational health.
“It’s him,” she said. “He’s a stand-up guy who does the right thing.”
Katy Johnson, Denfeld Clinic’s manager, agreed.
“What Dr. Wendland is doing is a testimony of not only who he is as a physician, but who he is as a person,” Johnson said. “And that’s something I think St. Luke’s is very proud of.”
In a statement, Dr. Gary Peterson, St. Luke’s chief medical officer, echoed those sentiments.
“St. Luke’s is very proud of Dr. Wendland’s commitment to serving the people of Sierra Leone,” Peterson said. “We wish him well in his mission to Sierra Leone and look forward to his safe return.”
The WHO clearly is in a hurry to get Wendland started. He received an email from the WHO on Sept. 18, inviting him to apply. After completing security training online, he applied on Friday, Sept. 26, and was asked for his curriculum vitae two hours later. He interviewed for the position on the following Wednesday, Oct. 1, via a conference call. Five days later, he was informed the WHO had recommended him for the position.
And this past Sunday, while sitting with his father in church before the service began, he checked his email and got the news that Sierra Leone had approved his appointment.
He originally had been told he’d have a week of orientation in Geneva, but that has been cut to two days. He leaves Duluth on Oct. 28. The tight timeline shows the agency’s urgency, but some details have gotten lost in the rush.
“They’ve been good about letting me know they want me to work there, but not very good about letting me know where I’m living, how I get ahold of people, do I have health insurance?” Wendland said.
Wendland has traveled overseas before, but not in his capacity as a doctor. He has never been to Africa. He has a lot to do in a short amount of time.
“I’ve never packed for a six-month absence or thought about some of the things you might need to think about for a six-month absence,” Wendland said.
He’s balancing the uncertainty and risk against the professional challenge that lies ahead.
“It’s challenging,” he said. “But I look forward to it, in a way, because it is challenging. You’re dealing with something that’s different and evolving and trying to adapt to it in a way that makes people safer.”