Trial by Fire in the Lassa Ward

Trial by Fire in the Lassa Ward

Dr. Ross Donaldson interrupted med school at UCLA to travel to Sierra Leone and treat victims of one of the world's deadliest diseases, the Lassa virus. Thus began an adventure that he turned into a book.

The nice thing about emergency medicine is that you know right away that you've made a difference.

By Wendy Soderburg for UCLA Today

An idealistic American medical student leaves his comfortable life in Los Angeles to travel to the war-ravaged African nation of Sierra Leone, determined to learn everything he can about the deadly Lassa virus — a highly contagious, rat-borne illness similar to Ebola.

After studying under a preeminent Lassa expert for a mere few weeks, however, the young medical student is horrified to learn that he will be left in charge of the clinic's isolation ward while his mentor travels to another town to teach. When he protests, the elderly doctor tells him, "No matter how low a cotton tree falls, it is still taller than grass."

Sound like the subject of an award-winning screenplay? Well, it's actually the true story of Dr. Ross Donaldson, 33, an assistant clinical professor at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, who took time off from medical school at UCLA in 2003 to study the Lassa virus in Africa. The real story gets even better.

Left to manage on his own, the young medical student is amazed at his progress. Struggling at first just to keep his patients alive with minimal equipment and medicine, he eventually manages to score small, but meaningful, triumphs. "I hardly recognized the person I had become," he later said.

Donaldson's experiences in Sierra Leone are the subject of his new book, "The Lassa Ward: One Man's Fight Against One of the World's Deadliest Diseases," published in May by St. Martin's Press. The New York Times called Donaldson's take on epidemic infection "dead-on, down to the bizarre stubbornness that often permeates stricken communities and prevents the very changes that might save lives." [In the case of Lassa, that meant persuading people to give up eating rats.]

One case involved a pregnant girl, around 13 years old, who came to the hospital when Dr. Aniru Conteh, the Lassa expert, was away. "At the time, Sierra Leone had the worst maternal mortality rates in the world," Donaldson said. "In addition to that, the girl was deathly ill with Lassa fever. So she already had a lot of strikes against her. And here was I, a medical student, being her doctor."

Nevertheless, Donaldson said he felt a "really big connection" with her. He and the nurses kept the girl alive until she was able to deliver her baby a couple of weeks later. The young mother was ultimately cured of Lassa fever and able to go home with her infant.

The idea for writing a book came out of a series of e-mails Donaldson wrote to his family and friends while he was in Sierra Leone. Unbeknownst to him, the e-mails — about the war in neighboring Liberia and his intense experiences at the clinic — began to take on a life of their own as they were forwarded to more and more people.

"Each time I came back, I kept getting more and more replies," he said. "So it was kind of an organic growth."

Even so, Donaldson might not have written the book were it not for the fact that he got very ill when he returned home to Los Angeles. It wasn't anything he had caught in Africa, but he was still so sick that he couldn't do normal activities for seven months. That gave him the time to write. [Those who read the book will find out more about Donaldson's illness and life up until his graduation from UCLA.]

"There was trauma from being in Sierra Leone and trauma from being sick when I got back," Donaldson said. "I had two people who were very close to me die during that period. So I found writing the book to be very cathartic."

Now an emergency medicine specialist, Donaldson currently spends half his time at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and half overseas, serving as program manager for Santa Monica-based International Medical Corps, one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations in Iraq. Donaldson travels to Iraq every other month to work on developing an emergency medical care system for civilians there. He also manages several other projects in Iraq, including training programs for EMTs and emergency care doctors and creating the equivalent of a 9-1-1 system.

Donaldson was pleased recently to hear from one of his trainers in Iraq, who described an incident in which one of the EMT program's trainees, walking past the clinic, came across a 16-year-old boy who was badly burned from a massive explosion and fire. The two clinic doctors didn't know how to perform emergency procedures, and the boy was suffocating.

The trainee, who had received only a week's worth of medical instruction thus far, grabbed the doctors' equipment, opened up the boy's airway and started breathing for him, saving the teenager's life.

"The nice thing about emergency medicine is that you know right away that you've made a difference," Donaldson said. "And so now, we're spreading it out across the whole country."

For more information about Dr. Ross Donaldson and his book, visit this website.

Published: Monday, August 10, 2009