The Lassa Ward One Man's Fight Against One of the World's Deadliest Diseases

Ross I. Donaldson, M.D., M.P.H.

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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"No matter how low a cotton tree falls, it is still taller than grass."

Those are the words that a humanitarian physician, Dr. Aniru Conteh, uses as he leaves a young medical student in charge of a ward filled with critically ill patients, in a hospital flooded with refugees from a runaway civil war. Ross Donaldson was that idealistic student who gave up his comfortable life in the States to venture into Sierra Leone, a country ravaged by fighting and plagued by conflict that was streaming across the border from neighboring Liberia.

In a hospital ward with meager supplies, Ross has to find some way to care for patients afflicted with Lassa fever, a highly contagious hemorrhagic illness similar to Ebola. Forced to confront his own fear of the disease, he stands alone to make life-and-death decisions in the face of a never-ending onslaught of the sick who are inundating the hospital. Ultimately, he finds himself fighting not only for the lives of others but also for his own life.

The Lassa Ward is the memoir of a young man studying to become a physician while trying to make his way through a land where a battle against one of the world's deadliest diseases matches a struggle for human rights and human decency. It is also the story of a young doctor-in-the-making who rises to the occasion and does his best to save the patients in his care, but not without finally having to confront his own human frailty.


Praise for The Lassa Ward

"For living color, turn to The Lassa Ward, which effortlessly transmits both the facts and the fascination of a bad infectious outbreak. Dr. Ross Donaldson spent two months in Sierra Leone as a medical student in 2003. Malaria, tuberculosis, yellow fever and AIDS were rampant, but Dr. Donaldson, for reasons clear perhaps only to the invulnerable post-adolescent he was at the time, decided to spend his time with Lassa fever patients. This rat-borne illness is one of Africa's dire viral hemorrhagic fevers; like Ebola, it can reduce a human body to a bruised, bloated corpse in days. It is terrifying—the secretions of infected patients easily spread the disease—but it is also treatable, and in the best cases patients get well and go home. Dr. Donaldson had trailed the elderly Lassa specialist Dr. Conteh for only a few weeks when, to his horror, he was left alone in charge of the Lassa isolation ward. 'No matter how low a cotton tree falls, it is still taller than grass,' the old doctor said as he left to teach in another town. In other words, the inexperienced Dr. Donaldson, with three years of medical school, had more formal education than anyone else around. With patients who were sicker than sick, and little in the way of tests or treatments, Dr. Donaldson clung to the usual life preservers: the advice of a couple of experienced nurses and his own common sense. At the end of two weeks, he writes, 'I hardly recognized the person I had become.' He was a Lassa expert, veteran of the old education-by-immersion process that terrifies medical students no matter where they are. His take on epidemic infection is dead-on, down to the bizarre stubbornness that often permeates stricken communities and prevents the very changes that might save lives. (For Lassa, a key preventive measure was to stop eating rats, but rat meat tasted far too good for that advice to be taken seriously.)"—Abigail Zuger, M.D., The New York Times
"Donaldson started out as an earnest, well-meaning American medical student, off on a great African adventure. He came of age in the middle of a raging epidemic, civil war, and hideous poverty, discovering a humanity few Americans ever experience. Donaldson has bared his soul, offering a lesson that should be required reading for every doctor-in-training."—Laurie Garrett, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health

"A touching and compelling account. The Lassa Ward brings to life the challenges and rewards that dedicated development workers face daily around the world."—Joseph E. Stiglitz, 2001 Nobel laureate in economics

"Required reading for all medical students and anyone looking for a little armchair medical adventure."—Library Journal

"Intrepid medical-school student confronts a deadly virus decimating West Africa. During his second year of medical school, Donaldson became intrigued by the deadly Lassa fever, a rat-borne hemorrhagic virus closely related to the Ebola and Marburg varieties that, left untreated, virtually liquefies the body's internal organs. Convinced he could help ease the suffering, he spent the summer of 2003 in civil-war-torn Sierra Leone, where Lassa was reaching epidemic proportions. The trip, Donaldson admits, while initially an exhilarating 'mix of danger and adventure,' soon became an all-encompassing endeavor that he came close to regretting several times. After a tour of the poverty-stricken environs, the author apprenticed under renowned Lassa expert Dr. Conteh, who was in charge of the Lassa ward in the town of Kenema. A desperate fight to save a female villager from cerebral malaria would pale in comparison to Donaldson's months of frenzied work in the 20-bed facility, especially after Conteh departed for a week to oversee a program of health-care training, leaving the author in charge of the ward. Though overwhelmed and unprepared to make some of 'the most critical decisions of [his] life,' Donaldson and his bare-bones medical staff trudged on, diagnosing, curing and sometimes burying contagious villagers as lines continued to form outside his door. Near the end of his time in West Africa, Donaldson faced an extremely tough personal challenge as well-a diagnosis of myocarditis, a crippling, life-threatening autoimmune disease. Passionate humanitarianism permeates the author's memoir. In a heartfelt epilogue, he compassionately acknowledges that the work he performed in West Africa is integral to the way he practices medicine today. A rewarding memoir."Kirkus Reviews

"Donaldson is a medical cowboy, chasing viruses in Africa, but also a UCLA medical prof and ER doc. This book is a wild and extraordinary memoir of his 2003 summer in Sierra Leone as a naïve medical student studying Lassa fever (a close cousin of the Ebola virus). Donaldson gives passionate and powerful reportage on a struggling clinic treating villagers and refugees from neighboring war-torn Liberia suffering from the devastating and often fatal illness. What inspired the adventure was the work of Dr. Aniru Conteh (who died in 2004), the hero at the heart of the story, whose Lassa ward served thousands, despite the lack of equipment, medicine and staff. For a week, Donaldson, untried and unsure, was left to treat the desperately ill patients alone—a test that turned a frightened student into a caring, if not altogether confident, young doctor . . . [T]his astounding story of the seemingly insurmountable barriers to public health in a Third World country revs up into an irresistible tale of discovery, courage and kindness."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Ross I. Donaldson, M.D., M.P.H.

  • Dr. Ross I. Donaldson, M.D., M.P.H., is a UCLA medical professor and works in one of L.A.'s main trauma centers. He is author of several medical textbooks, has been a humanitarian in some of the world's most dangerous places, and is host of Lifetime's Street Doctors. He lives in Venice Beach, California.

  • Dr. Ross Donaldson Marion Ettlinger


    Dr. Ross Donaldson

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