Ebola frontline: Hope lives here

WORKING in the heart of ­Sierra Leone’s Ebola outbreak, it’s hard for Melbourne doctor Melissa McRae not to cry.

But 10 days after arriving for a month-long stint in the Red Cross treatment centre outside the south-eastern town of ­Kenema, it is a skill she is ­having to perfect.

“Crying is a sure way to fog up your googles … and loss of vision is a huge issue as it makes me unsafe and means I have to leave the patient area,” Dr McRae said.

“I feel sad they have died alone in a tent, that their family did not get to say ­goodbye.”

Even in the middle of the massive humanitarian disaster, the 36-year-old emergency and public health doctor is full of hope and pride in the work the local and international team is achieving.

Despite the typical Ebola images beamed overseas, Dr McRae said people seldom walked around towns in protective yellow “moon suits”.

For the most part life in the region continues — making the task of educating people to safely live and work together without passing on the disease paramount.

“In Kenema market, the kids still give us a warm welcome but hold up their hands and say ‘No hands’ to communicate that they have learnt to not touch others.”

With no Ebola drug treatment available in the area and no cure as yet, the 40-strong medical team offers supportive care. Working conditions are very basic but there is no shortage of skilled staff and supplies.

One of the Melbourne doctor’s fundamental roles is working out which patients are actually infected with Ebola and ensuring they are placed in a “confirmed” patient ward separate from the “suspected” patient ward.

“The patients range from a month-old girl to a 70-year-old grandmother, and from those who are well enough to walk, to those too weak to lift their own head,” Dr McRae said.

“The one-month-old baby’s mother died from Ebola one week ago and she remains in the treatment centre with her father and sister who is seven.

“The baby is weak but has been improving over the last few days, her feeding has improved and she’s getting stronger. If the baby continues to improve and they all have a negative test, we hope to discharge this family in the coming days and help them resettle back into their community.”

Amid the grief, a 25-year-old male patient is lifting Dr McRae’s spirits more than anyone. Unable to talk, respond or even drink on his own when she first arrived, the man was carried out of his tent to see others recovering and give him hope.

“Yesterday morning, after four days of weakness he walked out of his tent and sat on a chair to eat his breakfast. Staff ran to the fence to watch, and other patients joined in the cheers and sang for him.

“It makes me smile thinking about him. With so many patients dying we need to focus on these patients.”

ANOTHER Aussie Red Cross aid worker on Sierra Leone’s Ebola frontline is nurse Tracy Zordan, a veteran of medical emergencies in Nigeria and Georgia and who has worked in remote Aboriginal townships. This is her diary.

MONDAY

I enter the high-risk area in my full Protective Personal Equipment (PPE). It looks like a moon suit but is essential to assist patients with food, water, medications and their hygiene. The Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) team constantly amaze me with their care and compassion for patients. They have no medical background. They are simply people who want to help. They give some of the best care I have ever seen.

TUESDAY

The heat in the PPE is intense. It feels like a sauna and I can only wear it for up to an hour at a time. We buried five people today including a two-year-old whose mum we buried a week before. His older brother, four, is fighting for his life. He used to smile but now he just sits quietly. I’m sure he is wondering why the people in the white suits keep taking his family away.

WEDNESDAY

I meet Toby, an IPC team leader. He is a primary school teacher. All the schools and universities have been shut down due to the outbreak. There are seven teachers and university lecturers on today’s team. Toby tells me he lost some of the children in his class to Ebola. He says his country must be free from Ebola or how else will he protect the children? He thanks me for risking my life and leaving my family to come here and fight along side him. “But of course we would,” is my reply. No country should fight this alone.

THURSDAY

One of the water pipes isn’t working. Without water, the Ebola treatment centre can’t function. We use 25,000 litres per day not including drinking water. Everything is disinfected with chlorine of varying strengths. I head off to the water treatment area to see what the issue is. For a nurse I have really learnt a lot about water, plumbing and chlorination treatments in the past three weeks. We use so much chlorine I smell like a swimming pool 24 hours a day, even after showering.

FRIDAY

Today was a great day. Five children between the ages of two and six were released after five weeks. Sadly all have lost their mothers and most their brothers and sisters. We thought they were orphaned until our Red Cross colleagues found relatives. There were lots of happy tears when four fathers found out their children were alive and could go home.

SATURDAY

Too many deaths today and we struggled for space in the morgue. It’s the first time I have cried since I arrived.

SUNDAY

“Congratulations! Your blood test is now negative for Ebola. You can go home today!” This is always followed with clapping, singing, laughter and smiles. We released two sisters today. One was close to death and we could hear the older one telling her she had to drink, to stay strong and that they were going to be leaving together. It makes me so happy to know she was right.

To donate to the Australian Red Cross Ebola Outbreak Appeal, go to redcross.org.au or call 1800 811 700.

Source: Herald Sun
Image Source: Melissa McRae inside the isolation area after dark (Credit: Herald Sun).

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Ryan Fritz

Ryan Fritz started The Advocate in 2014 to provide not-for-profits and charities with another media platform to tell their worthwhile hard news stories and opinion pieces effortlessly. In 2020, Ryan formed a team of volunteer journalists to help spread even more high-quality stories from the third sector. He also has over 10 years of experience as a media and communications professional for not-for-profits and charities.

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