In the Person of the Year citation, Time stated that "they are ordinary people who have made extraordinary sacrifices in 2014 to stem the spread of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa."2 These are "Ebola’s frontline fighters … who have risked their lives to stop this epidemic."2
The price paid by health care workers has been great and often grave. According to World Health Organization data from January 21, 2015, 828 health worker Ebola infections have been reported in the three intense-transmission countries and 499 deaths.3
So why do Ebola health care workers do what they do? In researching this, I could not find any answer specific to the Ebola epidemic, except perhaps something more general and steeped in spiritual terms: "For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love" (Galatians 5:13 NLT).
A less religious answer comes from an article by Linda Meta Mobula in Global Health: Science and Practice.4 Mobula serves in the Ebola Case Management Center of the Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA) Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. She quotes Ambrose Hollingworth Redmoon: "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear."5 Louise Gaye, a Liberian nurse, explains why she works as an Ebola fighter: "If I don’t come to tend to that person, who will? If everybody is afraid to enter the Ebola unit, who will go? Nobody. And our Liberian sisters and brothers will die."6
In a speech at the White House in October 2014, President Obama, speaking eloquently about the role of American health care workers fighting the Ebola epidemic, said:
"A lot of people talk about American exceptionalism. I’m a firm believer in American exceptionalism. You know why I am? It’s because of folks like this. It’s because we don’t run and hide when there’s a problem. Because we don’t react to our fears, but instead, we respond with commonsense and skill and courage. That’s the best of our history—not fear, not hysteria, not misinformation. We react clearly and firmly, even when others are losing their heads. That’s part of the reason why we’re effective. That’s part of the reason why people look to us. And because of the work that’s being done by folks like this and by folks who are right now, as we speak, in the three affected countries, we’re already seeing a difference.7"
Perhaps the answer of why Ebola health care workers serve could be viewed in the broader context of why people serve. Sidy spoke to this when he wrote,
"People are more able and willing to respond to visions of human goodness in practical ways, and they are viewing service to others as a part of their very being or "life purpose." It’s a natural way of feeling, it is not even seen by many as a "choice." Whereas in past eras people who served were seen as special, or altruistic, today many who serve do not see an alternative way of relating to other people or to the natural world. They are simply responding to the inner compulsion to do good with no external coercion from either moral codes or fear of punishment. 8"
So although Scientific American Medicine does not have a "Person of the Year" feature, I also raise my glass, admittedly belatedly, to the Ebola fighters. I do not have a precise explanation for your valiant act, but I bless you for it. You have all saved many lives while risking your own. And the world is a better place because of what you do.
4. Mobula LM. Courage is not the absence of fear: responding to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Glob Health Sci Pract 2014;2:487–9.
5. Redmoon AH. No peaceful warriors! Gnosis 1991;(21).