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Doctor Remembered For Dedication To Fighting Deadly Ebola

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Doctors and health workers in West Africa are especially vulnerable as they continue to battle to control the spread of Ebola, and dozens of them are dying.

The low for Sierra Leone came with the death of the country's campaigning "Ebola doctor," Dr. Sheik Humar Khan. Khan cared for dozens of patients before testing positive for Ebola and dying of the lethal virus, late last month.

Everyone you meet tells you what a smiling, gracious man Khan was, and that he was totally dedicated to his profession and to his branch of medicine: virology. He fought infectious diseases and haemorrhagic fevers like Ebola.

The 39-year-old father of two spent ten years as a physician and became the leading virologist in Sierra Leone. He risked his own life attending to others in the country's east, where the Ebola outbreak is concentrated. There, in June, he gave an interview to local journalist, Umaru Fofana, who asked about the risks to health workers.

"Yes, it's always of concern," Khan told Fofana. "I'm a health worker too. But ... what we have to understand clearly is the fact that the first point of call for someone who is ill is the health worker."

But being at the frontline of the fight against Ebola, Khan said that he was indeed afraid for his life and of contracting the virus.

"Yes of course ... because I cherish my life," he said. "And if you're afraid of it, you'll take the maximum precautions, which I'm doing."

A month later, on July 29, Khan himself succumbed to Ebola. Sierra Leoneans are hailing him as a national hero. To his close-knit family, he was the ninth of ten children, and known simply and fondly as Humar, their kid brother.

Khan's 93 year-old father, a retired headmaster, and mother, who's 89, live in Lunghi, in a modest house, wreathed in lush green foliage. That's where his brother, C-Ray, and two sisters, Mariama and Aissata, spoke about their late brother, as the rain poured down outside.

"He was so close to us. The time he came from Ghana, he was so full of life. He was so happy to be a doctor," said his sister, Mariama, as her eyes welled up with tears. She says Khan told her that talking to his patients and getting close to them helped them heal. "He liked his job so much."

Aissata Khan, another sister, says her brother was born a doctor, and that if you are born into it, then you will really have a passion for it.

"He [was] born a medical doctor and he died like a doctor," she says.

Khan's brother C-Ray says that his brother did not discriminate against people based on financial status, and would help anyone at his clinic. He says he helped humanity and that's how he will always remember him.

"He makes me proud. He makes his family proud," he says.

Khan's colleagues also speak highly of him. Friend and Sierra Leonean, cardiologist Dr. James Russel, met Khan in medical school 16 years ago. He too had questioned his friend on whether he was afraid of the work he was doing.

"He told me categorically — in his usual and ever cheerful and smiling face – that 'this is what I've been doing over the past six to ten years and if I leave, who will come in and step into my shoes?' I was honestly touched," Russel says.

Russel describes his friend as an extrovert and a gentleman who was down to earth, humble and respectful. He said while other doctors had remained in the capital, Freetown, Khan preferred to return to the provinces, continue his work on infectious diseases and haemorrhagic fevers and "give my service to the nation."

"This is a common call to us all, that we medical personnel should always give service to humanity," he says, "and make sure that greed and selfishness should not be the principle objective of our practice."

During mass at St. Anthony's Roman Catholic Church in Freetown Sunday morning, there was a special prayer titled "Prayer Against the Dreadful Disease for Ebola victims and patients." In an interview afterward, Father Alphonso Carew mentioned the name of the late Khan, a Muslim from a mixed Muslim-Christian household.

"We have the certainty of the death of Dr. Khan, a man who became a hero in this country, endeavoring to reach out to those who are afflicted and in the course he lost his life," Carew said. "So my first message is a big thank you."

Sheik Humar Khan has come to symbolize what is good about Sierra Leone, say his compatriots. They hope his legacy will inspire hope in others, as the Ebola crisis continues to rage in their country.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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