First his mentor and then his wife talked about how hard Dr. Martin Salia fought to provide quality health care to the people of his native Sierra Leone.
So hard that Salia stayed behind to care for patients suffering from Ebola as that deadly disease ravaged parts of West Africa in 2014.
It would eventually claim more than 11,000 lives including that of Salia, who arrived at the Nebraska Medical Center already extremely ill — so ill that he died about 36 hours after he arrived despite exhaustive efforts to save him.
At a ceremony at the medical center Wednesday, Salia’s family and friends and medical center staff together honored his courage and sacrifice and the battles they collectively fought.
“He fought so hard to promote health care in Sierra Leone,” said Isatu Salia, who returned to the medical center this week with the couple’s two sons for the first time since Salia’s death.
“As God may have it, the quality care that my husband … gave to the lives that he touched was given back to him here at the (Nebraska Medical Center),” she said. “I saw how much you gave all in your power, every chance for him to survive.”
Medical center staff also dedicated a plaque honoring Salia, which will hang inside the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit. Salia, 44, was a resident of the U.S. working at Kissy United Methodist Hospital in the Sierra Leone capital city of Freetown when he contracted the virus.
The fact that her husband will be remembered in words — etched on green stone, his favorite color — “hits my heart so hard,” said Isatu Salia, who traveled from the family’s home in Maryland.
“I was praying so hard, if only his name was somewhere, and now a memorial plaque — it’s like a dream come true,” she said.
Shelly Schwedhelm, the unit’s emergency preparedness and infection prevention director, also presented Salia with an engraved brick on behalf of biocontainment unit staff that will be part of a path in the hospital’s healing gardens. It reads: “In honor of Dr. Martin Salia, courage and heroism.”
Dr. Marilee Cole, a professor of medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center and director of the Georgetown Global Health Elective in Cameroon, described Salia as a “shooting star.” They worked together for 10 years, first while he was a surgical resident in Cameroon and then as colleagues.
There, he was the only trained surgeon in a 250-bed hospital. “We leaned heavily on him and got to see his excellence,” she said.
For the last two years while he was in Sierra Leone, she became his U.S.-based telemedicine consultant. When he was on leave with his family, he would call on her as he worked to round up medical equipment to take back with him.
Dr. Jeffrey Gold, chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, noted that Salia’s family gave the ultimate gift in making Salia’s sacrifice possible.
The staff at the medical center, he said, demonstrated their own brand of courage in coming to work in the face of such a devastating disease. The hospital started with 45 members on its team. Within a week, more than 200 had volunteered to help.
Two other patients brought to Omaha, Dr. Rick Sacra and freelance journalist Ashoka Mukpo, survived.
“That degree of caring … really characterizes what Dr. Salia did and what he stood for and characterizes what the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit stood for and stands for,” he said.
Dr. Alan Bloch, a retired captain with the U.S. Public Health Service, said donations have helped the family pay off $250,000 in expenses for Salia’s medical evacuation.
The Martin Salia Legacy Fund has since been established to fund his sons’ high school and college education. The oldest, Maada, is attending a junior college. The younger, Hinwaii, will be a high school junior.