LANDOVER HILLS, Md. – Dr. Martin Salia didn't get into the medical profession to get rich, and even though he was a permanent U.S. resident, he chose to work in his native Sierra Leone because the need for surgeons there was so great.
Although his medical colleagues were worried when he returned there to treat Ebola patients, they said the decision was consistent with his character.
The 44-year-old surgeon was remembered Saturday at his funeral Mass as a tireless, selfless and heroic advocate for medical care for the less fortunate. Salia died of Ebola on Nov. 17 after being flown to a hospital in Omaha, Nebraska, in the advanced stages of the deadly virus. He became the second person to die in the United States after contracting Ebola in West Africa, where it has killed nearly 7,000 people.
Ron Klain, the White House Ebola response coordinator, read a personal note of condolence from President Barack Obama to Salia's family.
"The greatest heroes are people who choose to face danger, who voluntarily put themselves at risk to help others," Klain said. "Martin Salia was such a man."
The 90-minute Mass at the home parish of Salia's family in Maryland drew a crowd that swelled to the hundreds. Relatives, friends, colleagues and dignitaries from both the U.S. and Sierra Leone were in attendance, along with Sierra Leonean immigrants from around the country, some of whom said they didn't know Salia personally.
Salia's wife, Isatu Salia, wept as she carried a small black box containing her husband's cremated remains into the church, flanked by the couple's sons, 20-year-old Maada and 14-year-old Hinwaii.
Bockari Stevens, the Sierra Leonean ambassador to the United States, called Salia a national hero who abandoned "the luxuries of the United States" to aid his homeland.
"It is a loss not only to your family. It is a loss to our country," Stevens said.
Stevens called for the United States to do more to "ensure that this scourge is blighted" in Sierra Leone, which is now bearing the brunt of the 8-month-old outbreak, and the other West African nations stricken by Ebola. Klain pledged that more aid was on the way.
"The world's response has been too late, but now, help is coming," he said to applause.
The top United Nations official in the fight against the disease said Saturday in an interview with The Associated Press that Sierra Leone will soon see a dramatic increase in Ebola treatment beds, but it's not clear who will staff them. Only about a quarter of a promised 1,200 treatment beds are up and running. The nation is also dogged by unsafe burials, which may account for up to 50 percent of all new cases, said Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response.
Salia was born and raised in Kenema, Sierra Leone, and received his medical training in Freetown, the country's capital. He later served as a surgical resident in Cameroon and also worked in Kenya and the United States. His dream had been to open his own hospital in Sierra Leone, colleagues said.
Salia did not receive aggressive treatment for Ebola until nearly two weeks after he first started showing symptoms. His formal diagnosis was delayed, and it took several days for him to be flown back to the United States. Those delays, doctors said, probably made it impossible for anyone to save his life.
Dr. Marilee Cole, an international health consultant who ran a Georgetown University training program in Cameroon, remembered Salia as an unusually humble physician. The diminutive, wiry surgeon was always in motion, she said, and despite his work ethic, he managed to organize a soccer league for the hospital staff. After he completed his residency and began training other doctors, they were awed by his multitude of skills, she said.
"You never knew how hard he was working until you talked to your colleagues," Cole said. "Over the course of many years, I came to understand there was something special about him."
In a brief interview after the Mass, Salia's older son said he was heartened by the esteem in which others held his father.
"I'm really proud that he was able to do so many things for a lot of people," Maada Salia said