American Fights for Liberia's Orphans Despite Her Own Ebola Scare
October 21, 2014 - By Ane Thompson - NBC News
Talk to Katie Meyler for 30 seconds and you understand why children love her. The 32-year-old from Bernardsville, New Jersey, is as effervescent as a shaken bottle of soda, with an infectious laugh and boundless energy.
Then consider where she works: Monrovia, the capital of Liberia and the capital of the Ebola epidemic devastating West Africa. For nine years, Katie has used her skills and passion to try to improve the lives of kids in this impoverished nation of 4 million people. Last year, she opened the More Than Me girls academy, the first tuition-free school in West Point, one of Monrovia's poorest neighborhoods.
Ebola has forced the government to close the academy and all other schools to try to stop the epidemic. Undaunted, Meyler is now using her building and resources to help those children victimized twice by the disease, the children who are now orphans and outcasts within their own community.
You might wonder does she worry about contracting Ebola herself? The answer is yes and it is a constant concern. "Like any time you don't feel good, just assume it's Ebola, which is really scary."
One time, Katie says, she got sick to her stomach and went to get tested. "I was in the Ebola treatment unit with all the other Liberians, who were — most of them, 90 percent of them definitely had Ebola. And they -- I watched people die in front of me. I watched children come in without any parents. It was a super sad moment. But I was really, obviously super grateful that I didn't have Ebola."
Meyler and her staff have all received training on how to protect themselves working among Ebola patients and those who have been in contact with them. The World Health Organization, UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders and other agencies have shown them how to put on, wear and most importantly take off personal protective equipment without getting infected.
But the best protection is something much simpler she says. "I think the biggest way that you can protect yourself is by not touching anybody, so I do my best not to touch people." She also washes her hands constantly, on the average of every 15 minutes.
Though she could return to Bernardsville, New Jersey, Meyler plans to stay in Monrovia and continue to fight for the children. She dismisses any notion that she is unusually brave. "I keep saying this and it's true. Courage is not the absence of fear, it's the ability to act in spite of it. And I feel like as long as my kids are here, they can't leave, I'm not going anywhere either. I have the ability to go, but that doesn't mean I should. I feel with everything inside of me that I'm supposed to be here fighting with everything I have."
And she is expanding her territory. Having helped to stem the disease in the West Point neighborhood of Monrovia, Meyler's team has been asked to help out in five other Ebola "hot zones" in Liberia's capital. She says it's not enough just to care for the orphans: The disease must be stopped from taking their parents.
To learn more about More than Me, click here.