Ella Watson-Stryker on TIME magazine cover


Alumna Ella Watson-Stryker was the subject of one of five covers published by Time in December.

Jackie Nickerson courtesy of Time magazine

When alumna Ella Watson-Stryker, a health promoter with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), was asked by the organization in March to travel to Guinea to help fight an outbreak of viral hemorrhagic fever, she immediately hopped on a jet bound for the beleaguered West African nation. Awaiting her connecting flight at London’s Heathrow Airport, she was informed that the virus was Ebola and that she should return. With cinematic visions of the havoc that the deadly virus wreaks  on its victims, she was briefly tempted to get back on a jet homeward bound for New York City.

But Watson-Stryker RC’02 didn’t. Instead, hard-wired to help, she spent a trying year working around the clock and facing impossible circumstances to help the people of several West African nations cope with Ebola. When she first arrived, families and entire villages were being wiped out before her eyes, often within a matter of hours. But she helped where she could, despite the impossible conditions. And for her efforts, she was designated a Time magazine Person of the Year for 2014, sharing the distinction with all the health care providers who remain on the front lines in the fight against Ebola.

“The rest of the world can sleep  at night because a group of men  and women are willing to stand and fight,” wrote Nancy Gibbs, the managing editor of Time. “For tireless acts of courage and mercy, for buying the world time to boost its defenses, for risking, for persisting, for sacrificing and saving, the Ebola fighters are Time’s 2014 Person of the Year.”

Watson-Stryker’s first stop was Guéckédou, Guinea, “a typical West African town, and it was completely different at the same time,” she wrote in an essay appearing in Time. “Everyone was terrified. You could see it in people’s eyes. That’s really what Ebola does—it scares people. It’s a disease that creates fear.”

The fear of the virus, and frequent suspicion of the aid workers’ motives, siphoned villagers’ rational thought to take preventative measures, making it even more difficult for Watson-Stryker to conduct her job of educating people about Ebola so that they could protect themselves. (She also helps in the effort to trace patients’ contacts, a critical step in fighting the disease.) Early on, Watson-Stryker realized she couldn’t have possibly anticipated how she would react to what she encountered, learning the hard way that her heart was going to be broken each day: “There was a graveyard in the village, and I knew all of the graves,” she wrote. “There was one week that we went to nine funerals. They were people we knew before they were sick. We knew them when they were sick, and we took them home in a body bag. It’s emotionally devastating to go through that process. The lesson you learn in Ebola is, don’t get attached to anyone except a survivor.”

By mid-July, Watson-Stryker, a geography and religion major at Rutgers before earning a master’s in public health from Columbia University, had been assigned to Sierra Leone, where conditions were abysmal. “It was clear that the situation was completely out of control,” Watson-Stryker wrote. “It was really a desperate situation. We didn’t have enough staff. We didn’t have enough beds. We didn’t have enough of anything.”

At times it seemed as if her only effective tool was the plastic spray bottles filled with chlorine water that Watson-Stryker and other health care workers used to constantly spray themselves after helping in a village. And it became clear to the workers that, despite working 12-hour days, including weekends, their efforts weren’t going to be enough. Meanwhile, MSF was one of the few medical organizations expanding its efforts while others chose to evacuate the region.

“I don’t know how much I help,” wrote Watson-Stryker, who was also stationed in Mali. “A lot of the time it just seems like too little too late. But I’m doing it because if I wasn’t here on the ground doing my job, I would be in the U.S. reading newspapers and saying, ‘Someone needs to be doing something.’ For me it’s better to be here trying than to have that sense of helplessness at home.”