Kathleen Conery's life as a Peace Corps volunteer is marked by abrupt turns.

At the end of July, the Eugene resident was living with a family in Mombeya, a village in Guinea in West Africa, when suddenly the corps sent a text saying she would be evacuated the next morning. The reason: The Ebola virus in West Africa was out of control.

Conery said she and 19 other volunteers living and working in central Guinea were stunned.

"All of a sudden you're leaving. And then you're on a plane," she said.

Today, Conery is waiting at her parents' south Eugene home for word that the epidemic has subsided, that the Peace Corps will send her back and she can resume her two-year tour as a public health volunteer in Africa.

"They emphasized, 'You have a return ticket. This is temporary. We'll bring you back quickly,'?" she said.

Since Conery was evacuated, the death toll in the hardest-hit countries -- Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone -- has continued to mount, from 729 then to 1,069 at last count.

The viral hemorrhagic fever causes pain, high fever and bleeding from every opening in the body. About 60 percent of people who are infected die of the disease.

Citing the high risk of death, the World Health Organization authorized doctors to try unproven drugs and vaccines.

Medical officials, meanwhile, are trying to break the virus's chain of transmission by identifying and isolating carriers before they come in contact with other people.

Conery takes a matter-of-fact approach to Ebola.

Growing up in Eugene, the daughter of two education technology experts developed an interest in science. She read the 1995 thriller "The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus."

"Diseases in general were something that really interested me. ... I just find it fascinating how they work in the body and how they spread throughout populations," she said.

Conery studied biology at the University of Washington. In May of her senior year, Conery received her Peace Corps posting. She was to go to Kenya to teach.

To prepare, she began learning Swahili.

But one week before she was to go, terrorist gunmen shot and killed 72 people in an attack on a shopping mall in Kenya.

The Peace Corps delayed and then cancelled her posting, then offered her the Guinea spot.

Conery said she'd take anything.

"I said, 'I just want to leave. I'm ready to go now and I want to get going.'"

Conery arrived in Guinea in Western Africa in November, and in her host village, Mombeya, in December.

The town of 1,000 is made up of subsistence farmers, who live without electricity or running water.

Conery used a solar charger to keep her cell phone in operation. She took bucket baths. She drew water hand-over-hand from a well in her family's compound.

She ate meals with her family, who have gave her the Guinean name of Rama.

Dinner consists of a big pile of rice on a platter. The meal is ready when her host mother pours one of three oily sauces over the rice -- one of sweet potato leaves, one of onions and one of peanuts.

The family ate directly from the collective platter.

"I use a spoon. My family does not," Conery said. "They know I'm an American and I need a spoon. Anywhere we go, they yell at a kid to go run and find a spoon for Rama."

Peace Corps volunteers are supposed to find out what locals most want help with.

"It can be really hard to know where to start," Conery said.

There was also a language barrier. Conery had studied French at South Eugene High School, and French is the language of Guinea's educated class. But most of Mombeya speaks only the indigenous language, Pular.

Slowly, Conery found her place.

The young girls in her host family -- Dalandja, 6, and Hadja, 8 -- followed her everywhere. She learned some Pular and began having conversations with her host mom, Kaciatu Balde.

Conery learned that she could help by joining the fight against malaria, a scourge in Mombeya.

West Africa is the hardest-hit region of the world for the feverish, debilitating and sometimes fatal disease.

Malaria has been confirmed in 44 percent of Guinean children aged six months to five years, according to the Guinea Malaria Operational Plan for 2014.

Peace Corps volunteers in Guinea must take preventative medications through their tour; most Guineans can't afford that.

"Malaria meds are pretty expensive," Conery said, "and it would be hard to take them every day for your whole life."

The national malaria strategy is for free distribution of long-lasting, insecticide-treated nets. The trouble is, some Guineans don't like to use the nets that hang over their beds while they sleep.

"There's a lot of stigma about it," Conery said. "The ones that are pure white remind them of funeral shrouds.

"Also, a lot of times, kids aren't actually sleeping in beds. They're sleeping on mats on the floor, and it's really hard to hang a net that will cover that," she said.

About half of Guinean households own at least one net, but only about one quarter of children sleep under one, according to the operational plan. Conery organized net washing and repair events in Mombeya to help destigmatize their use.

During the event, she talks about malaria, and tries to dispel common myths about the disease, such as eating too many mangos causes malaria or staying too long in the sun causes the disease.

Conery also modeled and promoted hand washing to prevent diarrhea and other hand-to-mouth diseases, including Ebola. As she focused on malaria and diarrhea, the first cases Ebola cases arose in Guinea in March.

Guineans, many of whom have cell phones, got one text from their government that said: wash your hands and avoid the sick and dying, Conery said.

Otherwise, they had no source of information. Radio broadcasts were in French, in which only a few of the highly educated residents spoke.

Absent more information, villagers turned to Conery. They asked: "How can we get it? Can we get it from mosquitoes?"

On and off, over the next several months, the Peace Corps medical officers warned volunteers to stay away from community health centers.

They said, "don't come into contact with severely sick people or dead bodies and don't eat bush rat or bats or monkeys," Conery said.

She said the villagers don't eat bush meat, either, but chicken and beef, when they can.

The village was so isolated by rutted and rocky roads there was little risk of the disease arriving, she said.

In fact, most people in her village never left the village.

Still, when the Peace Corps ordered her out, she had to leave.

In early August, Conery was one of 340 Peace Corps members from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to board a commercial flight for home.

The corps kept two volunteers because they'd encountered someone who later died of an Ebola infection, according to the agency. Those two will stay in isolation for 21 days, to make sure they aren't infected, before they can fly home. "The odds of them contracting the disease are next to zero because you really have to have close contact with bodily fluids, and the person that they came in contact with was not yet sick," Conery said.

Still, back in Eugene, on Peace Corps advice, Conery takes her temperature twice to make sure she's free of Ebola.

Now, she's biding her time, hoping that Guinea will contain the outbreak, so she can return.

On Wednesday, President Alpha Condé declared an emergency, restricted anyone exposed to Ebola to their homes, banned transport of bodies between towns and clamped down on passage at the borders.

Conery is comparing notes with other evacuated volunteers on "how great showers are" and how she's relishing the smell and taste of food, including "craving things I didn't like before I left."

Conery's father has Duck football tickets, and so she just might find herself on Aug. 30 in Autzen Stadium -- seemingly a universe away from Guinea. Re-entry, she said, is a surreal.

"I lived in Eugene my whole life. It's funny to come home; it doesn't feel like home," she said. "But then, part of it feels like I never left.

"Like, was the whole last year a dream?"

Follow Diane on Twitter @diane_dietz . Email diane.dietz@registerguard.com .

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.