"We cannot do anything for her"

08 October 2014

The people are dying - in ambulances on their way to us, quietly in corners of our treatment center, under the beds, sometimes crazily stumbling from place to place. The final stages of this disease must be agonizing, for even in the extremes of their final weakness our patients contort themselves into impossible positions in pools of their own body fluids, their faces struck dumb in strident grimaces.

I am sorry to tell you this, but it is the face to face reality that the media and the numbers cannot describe.

Yesterday afternoon I went to do discharges with Konneh, the Team Leader of Team 2 of our national nursing staff (we have four). In the ward we call “C2” for confirmed 2, we found a woman tangled on the floor under the bed of her neighboring patient, a terrified but inert little girl who looks to be around 11.

The woman’s upper body was curved around one middle bed leg, her legs wedged around the opposite middle bed leg, her lower legs and feet protruding from under one side of the bed, her face from the other, staring up into a blank nothing, her mouth stretched wide, the desperate death-mask I am coming to recognize. She was still breathing but could not respond, even to moan.

Despite training in Brussels, briefing in Freetown and Bo and Kailahun, an ever-increasing pile of tales of misery, and my own past experience, I admit I was dumbfounded. I began to reach toward her and realized there was nothing, nothing to be done. I turned to Konneh stupidly and, bless him, even from within the depths of my PPE (personal protective equipment) and his, he had the compassion to say it to me in words - “We cannot do anything for her, Patricia”. We could not move her, lift her - we could not even wrestle her from under the bed. We had no proper equipment, we had limited time and energy, we had come for other tasks, the discharge of survivors. It was a period, a complete stop.

We moved the frightened girl to another bed and tried to make her comfortable. We tipped the woman’s bed up on its side to block the child’s view of her and so we could see her clearly. Yes, breathing. Yes, absolutely, dying. We took her blanket and covered her on the floor since the wind had come up and the rain started which drops the temperature to 77-80F and surprisingly feels quite cold.

We left her there. 

Patricia wrote this post on 20th September 2014 in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. For more information about MSF's work on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa please visit msf.org.uk/ebola