Andrew Wegoye, an emergency-room nurse at Inspira Medical Center Woodbury, will leave Thursday for at least four months in Liberia helping fight the Ebola epidemic.
Wegoye, 33, who lives in Haddon Township, said he had been following the crisis, and when the World Health Organization declared it a disaster, he felt he had to step forward.
"When I noticed it was not being contained, but just kept spiraling, I started searching for ways to actually help."
"The risks I totally understand," Wegoye added. "But I also understand that unless the international community responds, and sends over personnel to help, this problem is not going to go away and will keep getting worse. People in Liberia will continue dying."
He felt comfortable committing to four months, and may stay longer. Whenever he returns, he expects to remain in his home for 21 days. He understands it is mandatory now in New Jersey but says he would self-quarantine anyway. He wants his wife to stay with relatives, bringing him food.
He is familiar with the controversy involving Kaci Hickox, a nurse returning to Newark Liberty International Airport from Sierra Leone last week who was quarantined in a tent at a Newark hospital for three days before Gov. Christie permitted her to go home to Maine.
"I understand this is the first time they are doing it, so mistakes are bound to be made," Wegoye said. "I think the goal is good. How they did it sounds like that's where the problem was."
Wegoye will be working in Liberia's third-largest city, Buchanan, in one of 17 new Ebola treatment centers being built by the U.S. military.
He has signed up with AmeriCares, partnering with the International Organization for Migration. These two relief organizations have a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development to run three of the 17 new centers.
Wegoye said each of the centers is expected to have 100 beds, staffed by a team of 24 international doctors and nurses, most of them American.
He will do direct patient care, wearing a protective suit up to four hours a day and giving patients IVs and liquids by mouth to keep them hydrated.
Ebola makes people lose fatal amounts of fluid through vomiting and diarrhea. A big challenge in saving lives is just keeping victims hydrated.
Wegoye is a native of Uganda. He was working for an international charity there, MTAALA Foundation, when he fell in love with Elizabeth Seibert of Cherry Hill, a volunteer there in 2008. He moved to New Jersey in 2010, and they married in 2011.
Wegoye, now an American, earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture in Uganda, but always dreamed of working in health care, and pursued a nursing degree at Drexel University.
"I see the desperation in Liberia and I understand because I grew up in Uganda," he says. "I've seen people die from very curable diseases in Uganda, and I can't imagine how much worse this must be."
He said one of the 17 centers in Liberia will be devoted to caring for any health-care workers who get infected. He also said he has insurance and a guarantee from AmeriCares that he can be evacuated to the States if he were to become infected.
He said his wife supports his decision fully, as does his employer.
"I'm concerned for him, of course," said Elizabeth Wegoye, 26, now a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Rosa International Middle School in Cherry Hill. "At the same time, I think we both felt this isn't just a West African problem but all of our responsibility to do something about it."
He said there were many tears and prayers among his coworkers and family this week as he prepared to leave. The floor of his home Tuesday was covered with essentials he hoped to take, including bottles of bleach and chlorine - used to sterilize one's hands and clothes, and essential in stopping the spread of infection.
"The focus should not be about me," he stressed. "It should be about people in Liberia. Look beyond fear. Look for ways to get involved. Still it is not too late."
Cases among health-care workers
Deaths among health-care workers
SOURCE: World Health Organization