For Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, what was traumatic about being on the front lines of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone last year wasn’t just being suited up in biohazard suits trying to contain a terrifying incurable disease.
It was witnessing the sacrifices of the health care workers and the nurses, mainly women, who risked personal safety, financial ruin, familial strife and physical exhaustion to help battle the disease.
“The stories you hear about, the kind of things the health care workers have gone through are just unbelievable,” she said. “So many went through trauma of seeing their own friends die in their own units. For them to be there, it’s an immense part of personal bravery.”
Bhadelia, who holds three degrees from Tufts, including a MALD from The Fletcher School, has made the study of and the fight against dangerous pathogens her life’s work. This work has propelled her to a job as an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center and to prominence as director of infection control at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory.
Now she is adding further to her life’s work: advocating for and supporting the local health care workers who were so instrumental in helping to contain the outbreak last year and will be instrumental in future epidemics.
For this, and for being at the vanguard of the critical international effort to build better responses to disease outbreaks, Bhadelia has been named the winner of the third annual Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award.
The award was established in 2014 by the Fletcher Board of Advisors and the School’s executive leadership to honor outstanding female graduates who are making a meaningful impact in the world in the private, public and NGO sectors.
“Nahid has demonstrated extraordinary leadership and selfless commitment—not to mention enormous courage—in pursuing her work,” said Leslie Puth, MALD ’11, chair of the FWLA committee. “She developed a unique mix of knowledge and skills while earning degrees at Fletcher and at Tufts. This has endowed her with a perspective on health issues that is both broad and deep, exemplified by her work with patients and health care workers in Sierra Leone during the recent Ebola crisis.”
Bhadelia, who calls the Boston-area town of Brookline home, ended up as an undergraduate at Tufts in 1995. Armed with the bachelor’s degree in biology in 1999, she turned her attentions to a medical degree at Tufts School of Medicine.
At the same time, she enrolled at Fletcher, a decision that she calls a “much less traveled road” where public health work is concerned.
“The reason I decided on Fletcher was because I truly felt that a lot of the elements that drive the progression of epidemics— of outbreaks becoming epidemics, of outbreaks emerging in the first place— are so entrenched in things like climate change, environmental justice, economic development,” she said. “All of these things are so closely tied.”
While at Fletcher, she worked with former professors Adil Najam, who was her thesis advisor, and Peter Uvin, then the founding director of the Institute of Human Security, as well as Steven Block, professor of international economics and director of the Program on International Development who currently serves as academic dean.
She wrote her master’s thesis on how HIV/AIDS affected many African countries’ economic productivity, “taking the human security perspective and trying to make a practical version of it, trying to suggest proper intervention.”
As an example of the way she’s been able to meld her medical background with her Fletcher research, Bhadelia pointed to one of the epicenters of the West Africa epidemic, in Guinea, where there had been vast deforestation. People were being pushed into greater interactions with animal populations, where the risk for exposure to foreign pathogens increases, she said.
“What Fletcher gave me was exactly that: the background to understand the tapestry that sets up the scene for pathogens to emerge,” she said.
That laid the groundwork for the job she ended up getting in 2011, as director of infectious disease at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory. The facility is a “biosafety hazard level 4” laboratory, one of six around the United States, funded by the federal government, to help deal with exceedingly dangerous diseases like Ebola.
She was hired, she said, specifically because of her background in both infectious control and human security.
It is “an amazing, incredible, perfect position that actually combines all my skills from Fletcher with all my medical training,” Bhadelia said.
In August 2014, with the Ebola outbreak snowballing through West Africa and prompting a global intervention, Bhadelia traveled to Sierra Leone to serve on a World Health Organization team treating patients at a government hospital’s Ebola treatment unit in Kenema, some four hours east of the capital Freetown.
She spent 12 days in and out of Ebola wards, garbed in high-tech biohazard safety suits and surrounded by the misery of an awful disease and the bravery of workers—both local and foreigners. She went back three more time in 2014 and 2015, working with the Boston-based NGO, Partners in Health, to help provide guidance to health care workers on proper techniques to protect themselves from contamination.
During her visits, Bhadelia said she realized that amid the massive outpouring of aid and equipment and money, it was the local health care workers who were the bulwark against complete catastrophe. And the health care workers, especially nurses, were overwhelmingly women as were, she said, the bulk of the people who were infected.
“Ebola is a disease of caretakers. You get it because you’re taking care of someone who’s sick. You get it because you’ve had close contact with bodily fluids. And the majority of caretakers were women,” she said.
Many nurses watched first-hand as their friends and relatives and acquaintance died horrible deaths. Many found their meager salaries halted as the disease overwhelmed governments. Many found themselves kicked out of their own houses by relatives fearful of being infected.
One veteran nurse who worked in an Ebola treatment ward and who was pregnant, Bhadelia said, traveled to Freetown, trying to get her salary so she could prepare for her baby’s birth. Having learned that she was an Ebola nurse, officials promptly seized her, and took her to an isolation ward—in an ambulance that was already carrying an Ebola positive patient.
With those experiences in mind, Bhadelia resolved to do something else to contribute: she set up a crowd-sourced fundraising campaign to get money to the local health care workers who continued to do their jobs even as they weren’t getting their salaries. The goal of the campaign was to serve as an advocacy tool to draw attention to the issue and to raise money for those affected.
By the beginning of December 2015, she had raised over $41,000 through individual donations from people around the United States. Using a mobile payment service, Splash Cash, utilized by the United Nations Development Program to get the cash directly to workers, she then uses Skype to notify the workers to make sure the money arrives and to find out how it’s being used.
Some use the money to pay rent. Others move their families to cleaner or safer surroundings. An ambulance driver used his funds to buy a motorcycle to earn money as a taxi driver. Another took more nursing courses to improve her training and qualifications.
“They are just flabbergasted. They’re like ‘What do you mean? People are giving us money out of nowhere? We’re suffering. We’re at the end of the line. What kind of people are these who would send money to strangers?’” Bhadelia said. “I gain more out of this than I think anybody else does because it’s such an amazing feeling to put money exactly where it is needed.”
She also laughs at how the idea of just giving people money runs counter to the kind of development research and thinking that she learned at Fletcher.
“This was not a ‘systems solution,’” she said. Most of the workers want to find employment and just need something to hold them over.
“You are talking about people who are so responsible and felt such an amazing sense of commitment that they stayed in such life-threatening situations,” she said. “Giving someone the agency to know how to spend their own money is actually the greatest amount of respect you can give someone.
“So I would say to all my Fletcher cohorts: think twice again, maybe cash payments are not such a bad thing in the right situation,” she said, laughing.
By Mike Eckel