"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
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.