“Hero” is a word that is tossed around very loosely in American culture. But there are true heroes, and it is hard to imagine people to whom the word applies with more validity than the six world-class researchers who died in the appalling missile attack on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 above eastern Ukraine, as they traveled to the AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne, Australia. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, addressing conference attendees, paid eloquent tribute to them: “The people we lost on that airplane gave their entire lives to the proposition that our common humanity matters more than our differences.” Their entire lives: that is, they did not just die to bring life-saving therapies to people with HIV/AIDS; they lived for that goal to, through the extraordinary effort and dedication to that cause that their colleagues and friends remembered in the aftermath of their senseless deaths.
Today, we hear of another hero: it has been confirmed that the lead doctor in Sierra Leone's battle against the deadly Ebola outbreak plaguing that nation and others in west Africa has been infected with the disease through his work. Sheik Omar Khan, a Sierra Leonean virologist who had treated as many as 100 Ebola victims, is now being treated in a facility run by Doctors Without Borders. The country's health minister said she would “do anything and everything within my power to ensure he survives.” We all should send good thoughts to Dr. Khan, even as we honor the lives of three nurses who worked with him in an Ebola treatment center. More than 200 people have died of the disease in Sierra Leone, out of more than 600 total deaths that nation, Liberia, and Guinea.
Reportedly, Khan said recently that “health workers are prone to the disease because we are the first port of call for somebody who is sickened by disease. Even with the full protective clothing you put on, you ar at risk.”
In fact, all healthcare workers put themselves in harm's way to one degree or another, and there is some degree of idealism at the core of each one's experience: a desire to prevent or relieve the suffering of others.