When David Wohl, MD, met Patience Wesseh in Liberia, her face was badly scarred by a burn injury, and he knew he could help. Since April when she arrived in Chapel Hill to begin her treatment at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, Patience has brought her own unique flavor to Wohl’s home.
At the Carrboro home of David Wohl, MD, Patience Wesseh walks back and forth to the kitchen. Today—like most days—she’s making Fufu, a staple dish of her home of Monrovia, Liberia. Fufu is made with flour made from the cassava plant. It is sticky, the consistency of mashed potatoes. Typically, it is served alongside soup.
For today’s soup, Patience has skillfully butchered a whole fish, adding it to a pot of boiling water with a handful of fresh okra and several Scotch bonnet peppers.
“Most of the food that Patience makes, we would think is very spicy,” Wohl said. “She probably thinks I’m a wimp.”
Patience loves to cook. She enjoys reading. She’s learning to sew. She smiles warmly when asked to recount her recent 19th birthday party.
“It was so much fun,” she said, listing all of the friends who gathered at Wohl’s home for the celebration.
Wohl, associate professor in the division of Infectious Diseases, first met Patience in Monrovia when he and Billy Fischer, MD, assistant professor in the division of Pulmonary Diseases and Critical Care Medicine, were there as part of ongoing work to improve treatment for people affected by the Ebola outbreak and the lives of Ebola survivors. They made a connection with an American woman who had purchased ambulances to more efficiently transport Ebola patients. That woman, Katie Meyler, also founded and runs More than Me, the school for girls Patience attends. While on a tour of the school, Wohl recalls Meyler pushing a very shy Patience to tell the visiting doctors what had happened to her, what had caused the scarring on her face and shoulders.
She had been burned.
Nearly two years earlier, while cooking, Patience suffered a seizure and fell, splashing a pot of hot cooking oil onto her face and upper body.
Upon meeting Patience, Wohl thought of the services and treatment provided by the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center back in Chapel Hill.
“I knew if there was any way we could get her to Chapel Hill, we could make a big difference,” Wohl said. “We consulted Bruce Cairns [MD, director of the Jaycee Burn Center], and he was very supportive so we said ‘let’s do it.’”
That was in April, 2015. In the time since, Patience has been living at Wohl’s home with his wife Alison Hilton and their two children. She has been receiving care at UNC Hospitals, the Jaycee Burn Center and the UNC Burn Reconstruction and Aesthetic Center. She has made incredible progress.
Wohl explained that when she arrived in Chapel Hill, the first step was treating her seizures.
“She was seizing probably once a day and with treatment from Dr. Angela Wabulya here at UNC we have gotten that under control,” Wohl said. “That has been a major victory.”
Once her seizures were under control, it was time to address her scarring, which left her unable to open her mouth fully and also caused her to stand out in West Point, the Monrovia neighborhood where her family lives.
“There is a stigma associated with being from West Point, which is a fairly dangerous slum that was also hit very hard by the Ebola outbreak,” Wohl said. “So, that stigma, on top of her scarring, limited her future prospects.”
Scott Hultman, MD, Ethel A. and James F. Valone Distinguished Professor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, used a series of laser treatments to help treat the scarring.
Her inability to fully open her mouth was a major functional concern that Hultman said needed to be addressed first.
“Once we dealt with functional problems, we used two different laser treatments to address the scarring on her face, neck, chest and shoulders,” Hultman said.
He explained that the initial course of laser therapy is meant to reduce inflammation. Then, a second type of laser is used to improve the scar’s appearance.
“We are really at a point in burn reconstruction where modulation of the scar is beginning to trump excision of the scar,” Hultman said. “So, what we are trying to do is modify and expedite the natural healing process.”
Following the laser treatments, Patience has undergone two tattooing sessions where the scars are colored to match the natural pigment of her skin.
Though Patience’s scars are still visible, Hultman said her progress is undeniable.
“Because of this treatment, her scars are softer, allowing her a much smoother range of motion to her neck,” Hultman said. “She’s able to animate her face and smile much more naturally.”
All of Patience’s treatments have been paid for through private donations to a Burn Center fund that was established to provide surgical or reconstructive services to international patients who would not otherwise have access to this level of care.
“I think of my job as providing hope for patients and I know that if I can help one patient, it translates into helping so many others.”
Wohl said he knows that people will question what it was about Patience that motivated him to bring her here to Chapel Hill.
“We were asked for help, and to say ‘no’ is not the way we operate,” Wohl said. “I was trained to do something and we shouldn’t walk away when that is needed.”
“I think of my job as providing hope for patients,” Hultman said. “And I know that if I can help one patient, it translates into helping so many others.”
In addition to the medical attention she’s received, Patience’s time in Chapel Hill included opportunities for personal growth and education, thanks largely to Wohl and his family.
She works with a tutor from the Orange County Literacy Council to improve her reading skills. She is taking sewing lessons. She walks to a local gym for yoga classes. She earns a little money walking the dog of a UNC medical student when the student is on rotation.
Wohl’s time in Liberia also familiarized him with some of the cultural resources Patience would need to feel comfortable while in Chapel Hill.
“The people of Liberia are very religious,” Wohl said. “Their Christian faith is strong.”
After reading about how an African family had become active members of the congregation at Christ United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, Patience decided that was where she would attend. Coincidentally, Hultman’s wife, Suzanne, is the church’s associate pastor.
“I really love going to church,” Patience said. “Since I’ve been going, I have found so many new friends.”
At church, Hultman said he has seen Patience’s self-confidence grow over the past several months.
“Initially, I noticed her sitting in the back by herself, usually leaving before the end of the service,” Hultman said. “Eventually, she and I would catch up and talk on a social level, which expanded into her socializing with other families and recently she has even been asked to participate in the worship services.”
Other new friends have helped make sure Patience gets a taste of home.
Wohl said when Patience first arrived he reached out to Esteria White, who runs the organization Diaspora Alliance NC, which helps immigrants and refugees from across the world engage in their communities across North Carolina. Like Patience, White is Liberian. Wohl came to know her during the Ebola outbreak, when she served as a local voice for West Africans.
White has helped Patience find the Fufu and other foods she loves to cook, often driving her to a grocery store in Durham run by a family who emigrated from Sierra Leone.
She’s liked nearly everything about North Carolina, but never did develop a taste for American food.
The fish she cooks at Wohl’s home is from Whole Foods. Back home in the coastal city of Monrovia, she would use fish freshly caught by a friend or relative.
In between trips to the kitchen to check on the progress of her lunch, she talks about her life in Chapel Hill, and her parents and siblings back home in Liberia.
Though she admits she’s become attached to Chapel Hill and the people she’s met here, Patience will return home soon, once her final treatment with Hultman is complete.
Wohl has already made plans to ensure she receives refills on the medication she needs to keep her seizures under control. He’ll hand deliver it on he and Fischer’s trips to Liberia where their work with Ebola survivors is ongoing.
She’s got a lot to do before she goes, though.
“I have a lot of places to go,” she said.
“There are a lot of people who want me to cook for them.”