Fighting Ebola: Passion for her country and love for public health helps IU alum conquer fears

Tiawanlyn Gongloe, a graduate of Indiana University and its School of Public Health-Bloomington, lives in Monrovia, Liberia, where she works for the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare as a member of the National Task Force, which was created to eliminate the Ebola virus from the country. Overwhelmed by the work involved in fighting the outbreak, which has led to more than 200 deaths in her country, she found time to answer some questions about her life in the midst of such tragedy and her experiences in Bloomington.

Tiawanlyn Gongloe at her graduation ceremony in May

Tiawanlyn Gongloe at her graduation ceremony in May

Born in Grand Bassa, Liberia, in West Africa at the beginning of a civil war that lasted “for 14 years of my life,” she fled to the United States with her family in 2002, when she was only 12 years old. She grew up in Bloomington, Ind., and received multiple degrees from Indiana University’s School of Public Health-Bloomington: a bachelor’s degree in community health and a Master of Public Health and Master of Science in School and College Health Education.

I asked her if she is afraid for her own health and safety. The short answer is “Yes, but … ”

“Every day that I wake up and go to work, knowing that I will be in the field and I may encounter people who may be suspected cases of the virus, I have a moment of fear,” she wrote. ” However, my passion for my country and my love for public health has helped me to conquer this fear.

“I get afraid when I hear the death news of other health workers due to the virus or the injury of health workers by the hands of community members. I believe that in these times, you have to take it as a job and be as committed to seeing an end result in order to keep going.”

Read about an IU-Liberia health collaboration

Health & Vitality: What is your current job and what do you do? How long have you done this?

Tiawanlyn Gongloe: I work with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare as a member of the National Task Force that was created to eliminate the Ebola virus disease from Liberia. The National Task Force (NTF) is made up of four working committees, of which I work with two based on the task at hand. I moved to Monrovia early July and started working with the NTF on July 9. This is a temporary job for the period of the outbreak. As a member of the NTF, I work with the Social Mobilization committee where we provide education and awareness on the deadly Ebola virus disease in communities and also work with team members to produce audio messages to the public. Also, we do some education for public entities and community organizations.

My work with the Contact Tracing Committee is much more hectic and this is done on a daily basis (CNN’s Dr. Gupta discusses contact tracing). The Contact Tracing Committee is responsible for following up with family members and others who had direct contact with a suspected or confirmed Ebola case. This is the committee that conducts the follow-up with each contact for a period of 21 days while the government provides food for them since they have to stay home for the follow-up period. The contact tracing team has contact tracers, who report to their supervisors and the supervisors report to the field monitor on a daily basis.

Health & Vitality: What’s a typical day like?

Tiawanlyn Gongloe: I serve as a field monitor so my typical day is spent leaving the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare by 9 a.m. and driving to seven locations around Monrovia to collect reports on contacts that are being followed up. While in the field we sometimes get calls about possible contacts or a recent death suspected to have been caused by the EVD and we have to go in and talk to the family and get as much information on all those who came in contact with the case. After visiting all of our sites, we return to the ministry by 5-6 p.m. for an update meeting so that the information that was collected would be added into the database. Due to the lack of access to Internet across the country, all of the data are collected through paper-based forms.

Health & Vitality: Can you help put what you’re dealing with into perspective for people like myself, who just follow it from afar through newscasts? Is this the kind of work you thought you would be doing when you were a student here?

Tiawanlyn Gongloe: I am overwhelmed because we are in the middle of a serious outbreak and our Government is strained because it has not dealt with such a disaster before. Because our financial and human resources are limited, it is hectic for those of us who have some skills and are willing to work. Also, the government and health care workers such as myself who go to meet with families and community members, find it difficult because of the resistance and denial of many of our people. Some communities, especially very traditional or religious communities, have threatened health workers who have tried to provide education and awareness in their communities. I have learned to be tactful in how I approach family members and communities.

This situation is not only giving me public health experience but it’s providing an opportunity for me to also demonstrate some of the public health principles, such as cultural competency. Although I am a Liberian, I have lived outside of Liberia for most of my life so many community members and families see me as a foreigner and sometimes this is used to my advantage since some people have lost trust in the Liberian Government. However, in many cases, it threatens people; therefore, I have to be observant of the communities that I’m going into and do my best to blend in. I have been successful on many occasions but there are times when I have to realize that it is beyond my control. Although, I did not imagine working in the middle of an outbreak such as the Ebola virus disease, I am really proud of how fast I was able to get involved and how much knowledge I have as a recent graduate.

Health & Vitality: How do you deal with the stress?

Tiawanlyn Gongloe: I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my fears or stress because if I do, I will become afraid and perhaps quit. When I feel stress and I think I am not ready for this kind of work, I think about my family and friends who are also in Liberia and how if I don’t work to help eliminate this virus, I will feel guilty for not putting my education to positive use. I believe these kinds of experiences are rare for many people in this field and this could be the beginning of great things to come in my career so that keeps me motivated to keep working.

Health & Vitality: Have your experiences with the Ebola outbreak changed your career goals? What’s your dream job?

Tiawanlyn Gongloe: I don’t think my experiences with the fight against the deadly Ebola virus disease have changed my career goals much because I’ve always had big dreams of working in the international sector. If anything, this experience has heightened my desire to pursue my dream of working someday as an international expert to countries with severe public health needs. Now I can assist in the fight against any infectious disease because I am aware of the steps to plan and take actions.

Health & Vitality: Why did you choose to study at IU?

Tiawanlyn Gongloe: I chose to study at IU for many reasons but one being the fact that I wanted to study at a university where I would have the opportunity to interact with colleagues and professors who have vast experience in their field and who were willing to work with me to build my career. My experience with the School of Public Health was a great one because I had professors who were so interested in learning more about me and understanding my goals and supporting me in achieving them. Although my background was a bit different from many of the other students, I never felt alone because of the support that I received. I was able to tailor a lot of my class assignments and writings to fit my professional goals and that helped me to get to where I am today.

Health & Vitality: Any advice for people considering public health as an academic degree or career?

Tiawanlyn Gongloe: Anyone considering public health needs to be truly passionate about this field because the work that you will do outside the classroom will not be static; therefore, you have to learn to fit into various environment and be ready for changes. You will have to learn to accept situations as they come because you might find yourself in a situation where there will be financial constraints but the need for public health is great so you will have to be creative in addressing those needs with what you have available.

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