What it’s like to survive Ebola—twice

Months after being cured of Ebola, infectious disease doctor Ian Crozier learned the virus was still hiding inside his eye
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Ian Crozier
Photograph by Kevin D. Liles

I was born in Zimbabwe, but my family moved to the U.S. when I was 10. In 2014 I began to hear about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and I volunteered my skills to the World Health Organization, which sent me to Kenema, Sierra Leone. At the time we were one of only two treatment centers in the country.

I’d never seen a virus so aggressive. The challenge was caring for these patients through all of the protective barriers. We were essentially wearing spacesuits at their bedsides. And still it was not always enough; a lot of nurses and healthcare workers died under my watch. The pace of the illness, how quickly people got worse and died, was unreal.

My first symptom was profound fatigue. Then came the fever and the severe headaches. I was hoping I had malaria, though I wasn’t surprised when I learned what it really was.

I was medevaced to Emory and arrived on September 9, 2014. In a matter of days, I was delirious, mumbling. I woke up four weeks later to find that I had been put on a ventilator when my lungs failed and dialysis when my kidneys shut down. That critical care kept me alive long enough that my immune system could create its own response.

I lost 30 pounds of muscle. I lost hearing in my left ear. My hair fell out. I had several large strokes. But I was alive, and tests indicated I was clear of the Ebola virus.

Then in early December, one of my eyes began hurting. I started to lose my sight. My ophthalmologist used a needle to draw some fluid from my eye and discovered that the virus was still active inside. They had to rush in and immediately disinfect everything, though luckily they found that the virus wasn’t present on the surface of my eye or in my tears.

A few days later, I looked in the mirror and saw that my iris had changed color from blue to green. I took several different drugs, including an experimental antiviral medication and a steroid injection for the eye, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be permanently blind. Gradually, though, I began to get my vision back. After a few months the eye even looked blue again.

Now I am totally clear of the virus, and I’m going back to Africa, where 10 to 20 percent of Ebola survivors are facing the same second-wave attack. The experience has definitely shaped me as a physician. I now know the helplessness and vulnerability my patients are facing and what survivors go through. —As told to Tony Rehagen

This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.

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