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Liberia sends out a siren and Kamloops answers the call

Through advocates in Kamloops and Vancouver, the west African nation will soon have an ambulance to be used in its fledgling emergency services
Kateh Francis
Francis Kateh visits the ambulance at Penny Pinchers in Kamloops on Monday, Sept. 10.

A promise he made to his mother and his god inspired Francis Kateh to return home.

For the surgeon, that meant leaving South Carolina — where he ran a hospital and worked in the public-health sector — and returning to Liberia, the African country where he was born under a cotton tree.

Ultimately, it also led to the doctor finally getting for his homeland something it desperately needs — an ambulance to be used in its fledgling emergency services sector.

Kateh came to Kamloops on Monday to accept the vehicle and thank his benefactors.

Through the assistance of two Methodist missionaries in Liberia, Kateh went to St. Lucia, where he obtained a degree in medicine. A few years later, he earned a master’s degree in health administration and another in homeland security, with an emphasis on public health disaster preparedness. Through it all, Kateh said, he remembered his promise to go from village to village and help the communities.

Convinced he wasn’t living up to that promise while in the U.S., Kateh returned to Liberia at about the same time the Ebola crisis erupted. Working at the Ganta United Methodist Hospital, where 22 of 29 health-care workers died from the disease, he was told to find a way to stabilize the situation, engage the community and build trust.

By creating two strategies, Kateh said, the transmission rate had decreased dramatically within three weeks. The pair of key decisions were to create community care centres (which he learned while working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta) and implement a rapid isolation and treatment of Ebola strategy.

This is where David Sakaki and a Vancouver charity enter the story.

Sakaki, the Kamloops firefighter who spends weeks overseas delivering fire trucks and ambulance, offering training and building water systems and schools, heard Kateh speak about Ebola at a session at the University of British Columbia. At dinner later, Sakaki asked Kateh what Liberia needed.

A fire truck and an ambulance, Kateh replied.

“And I was absolutely inspired,” Sakaki said, noting he joined forces with Rick Diamond, whose company, Diamond Delivery, helps Sakaki and his supporters pick up and deliver first-responder vehicles. Diamond was inspired by Vancouver General Hospital nurse Marj Ratel, who runs Korle Bu, a charity that collects and distributes medical items to West African countries.

An ambulance manufacturer got involved and dropped the price. Diamond bought it for $25,000 and Sakaki flew to Montreal to pick it up and drive it back to Kamloops. In a few weeks, it will be in a shipping container, heading to Liberia. The vehicle features the Liberian flag and 4455, which is the Liberian version of 911.

Kateh, who due to his work eradicating Ebola from Liberal has become the country’s deputy minister of health and chief medical officer, said the response to his brief wish list has left him believing obtaining a fire truck is no longer just a dream.

“With people like David and Rick, I believe we can make a major positive change,” Kateh said. “We can make the world a different place.”