What movie night means to patients in an Ebola ward

A different kind of screening.
A different kind of screening.
Image: Photo Stuart J. Sia
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BONG COUNTY, Liberia—The idea had been percolating in the back of my mind for a couple days. Dr. Friedrike Feuchte, our psychosocial coordinator at the Ebola treatment center here, had pitched the idea of holding a movie night. I was skeptical of the execution, but it seemed worth a shot. Logistics officer Pierre Beauchemin laughed when asked if we could get a projector from Gbarnga, the nearest town to our unit.

“The most high-tech thing you can get here is an electric fan,” he joked. What we could do, he explained, was have our Monrovia team pick one up from a Lebanese shop in the capitol. “The Lebanese have everything,” he assured me with a confident nod.

Fittingly, the logistics team procured a projector and portable screen a few days later. But the tougher question: Just how do you show a movie at an Ebola ward?

At the Bong County Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) run by International Medical Corps, the vast majority, nearly 90%, of our staff is Liberian. But the other 10% of us are international, coming from Canada, Chad, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Guinea, Iraq, Kenya, Spain, Uganda, and the United States. We’re here at the forefront of the epidemic, treating patients and providing hope to the communities. Since opening last month, we’ve admitted 158 patients of whom 63 tested positive for Ebola. Among the positive patients, 20 have fully recovered, 30 have died, and 13 are currently receiving care.

It is critically important for IMC to nurture community acceptance. People need to trust that this is a place where you come for help and to improve your chances of living even if you are sick. We do our best to humanize the facility’s blue-tarped walls, concrete floors and tin roofs, by providing patients with cell phones, radios and social spaces, to maintain contact with their families and communities, and to interact with each other. We are constantly thinking of ways we can provide comfort and enjoyment to our patients.

Hence, movie night.

Where to set up the projector? Not inside the high-risk area—who would operate it? And we’d have to burn it afterward anyway like all things that are not disinfect able.

And the screen? Well, I suppose we could spray it with chlorinated water between uses and it could live in the high-risk area. But, who would set it up and take it down? The nurses and doctors have to prioritize care, and wearing full protective gear is a grueling affair that we don’t want to subject them to any longer than they have to.

And most importantly, what movie do we screen? Wait for it… The Lion King. With a six-year-old girl and seven- and nine-year-old boys among our patients, the movie had to be kid-friendly. The Lion King was the only one we had that fit the bill.

I brought the projector, laptop, and karaoke machine that would serve as our sound system out to the laundry area. Dr. Steve Whiteley had the ingenuous idea of completely forgoing the portable screen and instead stringing up a blanket between high risk and low risk. That way, the projector could live in low risk, yet project the movie through the blanket into high risk.

Would that work?

The patients could tell something was up. They were sitting around in chairs listening to music, and turned it off when they saw me arrive with all the gear. The staff nearby took notice and began gathering around to see the technological circus about to take place. In short, the pressure was on.

Wrong cable connection. Need another computer. Where’s the blanket? And the clothesline? You stand on this chair. Someone hold this chair for him. We need to thread the line through the blanket. Use this pen to poke holes through it. Make the holes wider. There’s a knot in the line. Tie it to the shower. Not too tight, I need some slack! I’ll tie it to the laundry room. This chair isn’t high enough. Is this windowsill strong enough to support my weight? Apparently. Make it taut! The picture looks funny. Zoom out and focus the lens. We need to flip the picture. Color settings? No. Contrast Settings? No. Display Settings? Yes. Flip image? YES! I don’t hear anything. Unmute.

Naaaaaaaants ingonyaaaaaaama bagithi, Baba! Sithi uhmmmmm ‘gonyama…

Peeking around the blanket, I could see the patients’ smiling faces illuminated by the orange and yellow lights of a projected Simba and Nala. Harris Kollie, one of our psychosocial nurses, was smiling too. “This is very good,” he said. “They’re so happy.”