For Silver Creek resident Emily Shelden, becoming integrated into a new culture and lifestyle and then having that torn away in a matter of days is a test of her will.
Shelden, an active volunteer in the Peace Corps, recently joined nearly 340 volunteers in a mandatory evacuation from West Africa due to concerns over the threat of the Ebola virus. Having just returned home, Shelden sat down with the OBSERVER to detail her experience and set the record straight on the sensationalized views Americans may have about the deadly disease sometimes referred to as a "bloody fever."
"An individual in the U.S. might just read (in a headline), 'Ebola: Coming to America,' but they don't know all the isolation measures that are taken," she pointed out. "It's amazing some of the news reports that are out there. It's just for that shock value. Of course, it is a good thing people are paying attention to this outbreak, but I think it's not helpful or productive to do that sort of thing just for the shock value."
Silver Creek resident and Peace Corps volunteer Emily Shelden poses with her host sisters during her assignment in Guinea. Shelden was one of nearly 340 volunteers in a recent mandatory evacuation from West Africa due to concerns over the threat of the deadly Ebola virus.
Silver Creek resident and Peace Corps volunteer Emily Shelden makes peanut butter with her host family in Guinea.
Shelden poses inside her friend’s hut in Guinea.
A SECOND HOME
Shelden, 23, graduated from Geneva's Hobart and William Smith Colleges, which has a president that was a past Peace Corps director, as well as a number of previous Corps volunteers. She decided that after graduating, she would take a couple years off before pursuing graduate studies.
"I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to go experience other cultures, hopefully make a difference in someone's life and see the world," Shelden said. "When I applied (to the Corps), we were allowed to choose a location preference, so I had chosen Africa since I double-majored in political science and African studies. Africa's always fascinated me in the misconceptions that we as Americans think we know about it: the poverty and of course the diseases, especially now that Ebola is in Guinea."
Last December, Shelden stepped foot for the first time in Guinea, her assigned country, and in the tiny village of Tindo. She said it was "daunting" at first to enter a culture where she could barely speak the language, but within the first few days, she realized she had everything she needed.
"The community really accepted me with open arms," she noted.
Her job revolved around agriforestry, including projects on food security, preservation techniques and sustainability. She also taught English during her time there.
"It was a wonderful experience," Shelden said. "The glory of the Peace Corps too is that two-thirds of my job is just cross-cultural exchange. Of course, I love talking about Guinea, but it was also fun to share American culture as well with Guineans, like music parties to Beyonce and spaghetti dinners."
Peace Corps health officials first brought Ebola to volunteers' attention in February. Shelden said she never knew anyone who contracted the virus, adding the closest case to her was about a two-and-a-half hour drive away.
Over time, Shelden, via text messages from health officials, was given information on the disease and how to keep safe.
"I didn't feel too threatened because I knew the only way to contract the virus was through direct contact with bodily fluids and by eating bats or touching dead bodies, which I like to avoid anyway," Shelden said half-jokingly.
Everything changed for her a few weeks ago; she described the subsequent process as an "emotional roller coaster."
"We got a text message (that we had to evacuate) on July 29, and ... within a week, I was gone," Shelden recalled. "I had left my village within two days (of the message), then did followup stuff in the capital. About 90 of us (volunteers) got to the capital around the same time, but we did fly out (of the country) in waves.
"There wasn't much closure and I was devastated to leave. All I could really tell my village, my community and my family was that I'll return, so hopefully it wasn't a real goodbye quite yet."
Shelden elaborated on her sadness by noting her community had to stay behind and deal with the threat of Ebola on its own, with limited resources and information about it.
She said she initially wished the Peace Corps volunteers could have stayed to help educate Africans about Ebola and raise awareness of good health practices to help stem its growth.
"Of course I understand the reasoning for pulling us out, but it was disappointing for me," Shelden noted. "Ultimately, I think it was a good decision by the Peace Corps, especially because Guinea has just now closed its borders. I had full trust that they were going to do whatever they thought was best."
To get out of the country, volunteers completed a medical questionnaire and had their temperatures taken to test for Ebola. Shelden left Guinea Aug. 4 and arrived home the next day.
EBOLA IN THE MEDIA
According to the New York Times, more than 1,800 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola since March, making this the biggest outbreak on record. More than 1,000 people have died as a result.
Two American aid workers infected with Ebola while working in West Africa were transported to a containment unit in Atlanta, Ga., for treatment earlier this month. When the first victim arrived in Atlanta, media coverage included traffic-helicopter footage that followed an ambulance as it rushed down a highway to Emory University Hospital.
No cure is known for Ebola and no vaccine has been approved for human use.
"It was a tough decision (to evacuate our volunteers)," Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet said in a recent USA TODAY article. "We thought that the very nature of our volunteers' work, the fact that they are living and working in communities, exposed them perhaps to a degree that we felt the risk was just too great."
Ebola continues to rear its ugly head in national and world headlines. Experts say the threat of anyone in the United States contracting the virus is extremely small. The New York Times reported if that were to happen, standard infection control procedures would likely contain it.
However, that has not stopped the inherent paranoia from spreading in the media, according to Shelden.
"The topic of Ebola is shocking because there initially wasn't a whole lot known about the virus and of course that brings a fear of it spreading and exploding here in America - if you believe movies like 'Outbreak' or the book 'The Hot Zone' that's fiction, but people take it as fact," she said.
For now, Shelden said she is thankful she is healthy and Ebola-free. As for returning to West Africa, Hessler-Radelet told USA TODAY that her agency is committed to bringing volunteers back to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone "just as soon as we possibly can."
"Our volunteers want to go back," she noted, adding the health infrastructure in the region is weak, "so it's going to be a while.
"Several months, for sure."
"Hopefully this is just a paid vacation, but no matter when I go back, it's going to be difficult to rebuild those relationships and that trust," Shelden said. "But I am eager to return."
Anyone interested in talking with Shelden about the Peace Corps can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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