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American Catholic deacon and doctor assisting in Liberia Ebola outbreak

Providence, R.I., Sep 13, 2014 / 12:36 pm .- According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has infected at least 4,269 people, and claimed the lives of 2,288 as of Tuesday. It is the worst Ebola epidemic in history.

WebMD reports that the disease, also known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever or Ebola virus, kills up to 90 percent of infected individuals.

To help combat the deadly illness, Dr. Timothy Flanigan flew to Monrovia, Liberia, on his own accord to train and educate health care teams at Catholic hospitals and clinics.

“This is a terrible, infectious disease, which one can deal with safely with the appropriate training and supplies,” said Dr. Flanigan, an infectious disease specialist at Miriam Hospital, as well as a deacon at Tiverton parishes St. Christopher and St. Theresa, in a telephone interview last week with Rhode Island Catholic from Monrovia. “West Africa really did not have the proper equipment or the training to work with Ebola because it requires stringent infection control. But, infectious control is now being practiced in all health care settings and hospitals.”

For the next two months, Dr. Flanigan, who is also a professor of medicine at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, will be living at a guesthouse in Monrovia next door to St. Joseph’s Church. Accompanied by Sister Barbara Brilliant, FMM, dean of Mother Patern College of Health Sciences, and a coordinator with the Catholic Diocese of Monrovia, he arrived on August 31 with at least 10 bags filled with items such as masks, gowns and gloves.

“There also are lots of individual and national aid organizations that are sending in tons of supplies,” he said, acknowledging The Bernadine Sisters, The Salesian Missions, Catholic Relief Services and the Vatican, as Pope Francis initiated a charity to help. “The Church is present at the forefront of this epidemic.”

The Diocese of Providence has contributed to the effort as well, donating $2,500 donation to Tiverton Cares, a non-profit organization that’s assisting Dr. Flanigan by channeling required resources directly to the crisis area. In a letter to the organization accompanying the donation, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin noted, “We are proud that Dr. Flanigan, as a deacon of our Church, is making this significant sacrifice to serve so many people who are suffering from the terrible scourge of Ebola.”

The diocese, along with Dr. Flanigan’s parishes, has been collecting supplies such as hand sanitizer, bleach, disinfectants, plastic spray bottles and more. Father Przemyslaw “Shemek” Lepak, pastor of St. Christopher and St. Theresa, is overwhelmed by the support of his parishioners. That is especially true of Bob Gaw, a parishioner at St. Christopher, who donated a “whole truck full of supplies.”

“Every day, people are dropping off items,” said Father Shemek, adding that collected goods will be sent out via The Salesian Missions.

Still, he was “shocked” when Dr. Flanigan told him he was interested in going to Liberia.
“The first thing I asked him was, ‘is it really what you want to do?’” Father Shemek said. “He said, ‘it’s not really about what I want. I feel God is calling me to go.’ He dropped everything to serve the Lord. He is a remarkable person, and a man of great faith.”

But Father Shemek’s concern for Dr. Flanigan’s safety is understandable, as a number of clinics and hospitals in Liberia are closed because they treated a few patients who had Ebola without the appropriate equipment. As a result, health care workers became infected. Brother Patrick Nshamdze, lead administrator of St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital in Monrovia, became ill and perished after helping a woman who was treated, as did several doctors, nurses, and other medical employees.

Despite the turmoil, Dr. Flanigan said there is hope. Hospital and clinic staffers are regrouping, and making sure they have the equipment to reopen safely.

“I’m confident that the epidemic will be tackled, though it may take some time,” he said.
While Dr. Flanigan said Ebola is a “very serious and lethal disease,” he’s not worried about contracting it. Common sense precautions, medical knowledge and appropriate equipment are keeping him safe.

“What I’m doing is nothing terribly dramatic [or] courageous,” he said. “I’m just helping out in a way that seems to make sense. There are many other health care workers who are on the front-lines who are at much greater risk than I am.”

He also said that while Ebola is contagious, “it’s not like influenza,” as it is not airborne in its transmission. It is transmissible via direct human-to-human contact with infected blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids, as well as indirect contact with environments contaminated with these fluids.

“It’s not like you can get Ebola from walking around the street,” he said.

Aside from dealing with the outbreak, Dr. Flanigan is enriching his faith life through the experience. Family members and co-workers, as well as fellow medical professionals and the people of West Africa, continue to inspire and motivate him.

“They have a very deep faith here, and it really shines through in the middle of this challenge,” he said. “After Mass, they have Adoration. I’m participating in that and it’s very wonderful and beautiful for me. It’s a great help to participate and be part of their prayer, worship and sacrament. God’s always present.”

He also said his wife, Luba, herself a physician, was willing to “hold down the fort” on her own, which is no easy task, considering that they have five children. Though three are adults, one is in sixth grade, and the other is an eighth-grader.

“My family, including my wife, said, ‘If you think you can help, go ahead,’” he said. “And my colleagues at work have been kind enough to cover all the usual work that I do for two months.”

Dr. Flanigan went on to praise his pastor.

“Father Shemek has been very supportive,” he said. “The parish has been wonderful in providing supplies and raising money, which is really heartwarming.”

To share that warmth with others, Dr. Flanigan created a blog at He’s updating it as often as possible, highlighting his journey.

“It’s a way to chronicle my experience,” he said.

The blog not only captures his experiences, but also his faithfulness and affection for West Africans.

“There are so many Liberians who are working together in so many different ways,” he said. “The people of Liberia have tremendous resiliency and have overcome many difficult challenges in the past. With help from international communities, they will be able to overcome this, as well.”

Posted with permission from Rhode Island Catholic, official publication of the Diocese of Providence.

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