Infectious disease physician, Tufts alumna honored at 2016 Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award ceremony

Leslie Puth (F11), Chair of the Fletcher Women's Leadership Award, presents Dr. Nahid Bhadelia (J99, F05, M05) with the Fletcher Women's Leadership Award on March 11 for her work during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily

Nahid Bhadelia (J ’99, F ’04, M ’05) was honored at the third Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award Ceremony on Friday, March 11, for her efforts as a physician during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. 

The honor is awarded annually to an alumna of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy who demonstrates leadership and makes a meaningful impact in the private, public and NGO sectors, according to the Fletcher School website.

Bhadelia is currently an infectious disease physician, with a background in the field of infection control related to emerging pathogens and highly communicable infectious diseases. Bhadelia is the director of Infection Control and Medical Response at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory at Boston University, where she is also an assistant professor at the university’s School of Medicine.

During the Ebola epidemic in 2014 and 2015, Bhadelia travelled to Sierra Leone four times to treat patients and combat the crisis. When asked how she summoned the courage to fly to Sierra Leone and work as a physician during the Ebola crisis, Bhadelia replied with a quote from Hillel the Elder“If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

In her speech at the ceremony, Bhadelia described some of the challenges she faced in her work, such as a low health care worker-to-patient ratio. Bhadelia and five other physicians took care of over 100 patients. With such a low ratio, it was impossible for Bhadelia and her colleagues to save every patient, she said. She explained that the average Ebola patient loses 12 liters of fluids while they are sick. To replenish this loss of fluid, a health care worker needs to be by the bedside of a patient every hour of the day, she said.

Another challenge that Bhadelia said she and her colleagues faced was a lack of resources and funding. To compensate for this lack of materials, the physicians cut up tarps and used them as makeshift tools like aprons. Because of insufficient funding, health care workers in Sierra Leone were barely paid during the Ebola crisis. Bhadelia thus ran a national crowd funding campaign on GoFundMe to raise awareness and funds for these health care workers.

Bhadelia also utilized platforms such as GoFundMe and social media as tools to break down barriers in the international community. After she created her GoFundMe for the health care workers in Sierra Leone, the page was spread across social media websites. Eventually, Bhadelia’s cause was picked up and covered by national news outlets, which helped her raise sufficient funds, she said.

Hopefully, increased awareness about this problem will augment the pay of health care workers the next time an epidemic like Ebola breaks out, she said. Bhadelia predicted that the workers who served during the Ebola crisis will be unlikely to work during the next epidemic if they do not receive sufficient pay.

2016-03-11-Medford/Somerville-Tufts University-ASEAN-Dr. Nahid Bhadelia (J99, F05, M05) discusses her work in West Africa during the Ebola epidemic with Fletcher Profess of International Law Ian Johnstone (Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily). (Alex Knapp)

Dr. Nahid Bhadelia (J99, F05, M05) discusses her work in West Africa during the Ebola epidemic with Fletcher Professor of International Law Ian Johnstone. (Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily)

Bhadelia discussed other ways in which countries can prepare and improve their response for any upcoming epidemic. According to her, it is necessary that developing countries like Sierra Leone implement health care systems that can act as safety nets and catch the first cases of epidemics and put them in isolation before they spread. It is also important to decrease the alarmism and stigma surrounding epidemics in the international community. Additionally, according to Bhadelia, the large amount of airlines that stopped flying to West Africa during the Ebola crisis made it very difficult to transport volunteers into the area to combat the epidemic.

In a question and answer session after Bhadelia’s speech, she was asked how she balances her work with her life. She answered that in 2015 she spent six months in Sierra Leone and another one and a half months in quarantine and did not regret the amount of time and energy that she has put into her work, as she believed that her work is taking her life in the right direction.