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A crowd tossed garments on the ground and led Carrie Van Epps, center, to the school they built in central Liberia and named in her honor, in this photo from one her seven trips to the country. Van Epps, a retired nurse from Willmar, has volunteered there as a health care educator and provider. (Submitted photo)
A crowd tossed garments on the ground and led Carrie Van Epps, center, to the school they built in central Liberia and named in her honor, in this photo from one her seven trips to the country. Van Epps, a retired nurse from Willmar, has volunteered there as a health care educator and provider. (Submitted photo)
Keeping hope for Liberia in Willmar: Retired nurse who has volunteered there now watching Ebola outbreak
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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR — Carrie Van Epps has fled armed rebel fighters, treated bullet-ridden patients, and heard the cry of children as they were brutally beaten in a country torn by civil war.

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She also knows the other side of life in Liberia: She’s watched as remote, rural villagers carried materials over long jungle paths and worked hard hours to build a school to give their children hope for the future.

The world is watching what the future holds for Liberia, where the Ebola virus is already known to have claimed more than 500 lives. Doctors Without Borders warns that if the outbreak is not controlled in Liberia, it will not be controlled in the continent, said Van Epps. From her home in Willmar, she keeps in daily contact with many in the country.

Since she retired from a nursing career at Rice Memorial Hospital, she has made seven extended trips to Liberia to serve as a volunteer health care educator and provider. Her first trip was in 2002, and brought her to the hospital in Phebe in the country’s interior.

Today, the hospital is in the midst of work to make it a location to treat Ebola victims.

Van Epps has received news that two nurses she knew from her work in Liberia have died from Ebola. Two of the doctors she knew have contracted the virus as well, but are recovering.

Van Epps knows well the challenges of controlling the disease in Liberia, starting with public perceptions of it. There are many who believe the virus has been brought to the country by the outside health care providers who have come to help.

There are not enough doctors — only one per 100,000 people — to care for people in the best of times. Malaria, gastrointestinal and upper respiratory diseases remain killers.

“The people dying of other diseases are much larger than the people dying of Ebola,’’ she said.  

Unfortunately, those numbers could rise further due to the Ebola outbreak. Health care centers have closed due to the outbreak, which has made it impossible for many to receive care for other illnesses.  

Van Epps said she is also concerned about the prospects for civil unrest. The aggressive campaigns to isolate people in Ebola hot spots are making it more difficult for many people to secure their basic needs, she explained.

Most of all, she doesn’t want to see the world turn its back on Liberia. It has never been more important to see that basic health care supplies are provided to the country. This is certainly not the time to close the borders and make it all the more difficult for the country and its anemic economy, she added.

She supports work by the Global Health Ministries to provide supplies, and credits many other organizations with rising to the occasion as well.

Doctors Without Borders warns that it will be several months and more likely a year before the country can get ahead of this outbreak, according to Van Epps.

As for her own assessment, she points to a people who have already endured so much. “These people have a lot of hope. They are so resilient and they are so used to death,’’ she said.

She knows what the people of Liberia can do with help. During one of her trips to the country, she returned to the site where rural villagers had labored so hard to build a school.

Funds she had raised here had helped make it possible.

A three-hour trek down a jungle path led her to the new school.  A crowd was waiting: They had tossed garments on the ground for her to walk atop on the last steps to the school named in her honor.

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