So, finally, I’m off. This time on Saturday I’ll be on a plane to Freetown in Sierra Leone, to join the more or less 3500 MSF staff, national and international, who are fighting the largest, most deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus we have ever seen.
I can’t wait. I’m leaving with the support and love of family and friends, even if they would nearly all prefer I wasn’t going. Especially my three children: all grown up, but scared for me, although they understand my motivation.
With nearly 16,000 confirmed cases of Ebola to date across West Africa, over one third of whom have died, I question if I am scared myself. I was glad to see one of our doctors, recorded on BBC Panorama, admit that he thought it wouldn’t be natural not to be a bit scared, or at least apprehensive. So yes, I am.
After an excellent preparatory training, learning about the epidemiology of the virus, of the modes of transmission, of infection control, I’m very aware of the dangers we will be exposed to. I’m also aware of the precautions we need to take to protect ourselves; and I’m aware of human fallibility. A needlestick accident while taking blood. Letting my exposed skin come in contact with the virus-covered protective clothing as I remove it after being in the isolation unit.
The training gave us a good practical preparation, and I feel prepared physically. I know what I need to do. But am I prepared psychologically? How will I cope with the inevitable tragedies, the orphaned children, the appalling, lonely deaths of young and old alike, where the only human contact is from strange creatures dressed as aliens? This will be, I think, my twelfth mission with MSF, and I have seen my share of death and destruction in the war zones of the Central African Republic, of Libya and Syria. But tragic as those situations were, somehow I feel this will be even worse. I think it’s because of the unpredictability, the invisibility of the virus, the bereft isolation of the dying.
But as a nurse, fully covered in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) I will be in a position to support them, the most vulnerable. We cannot cure Ebola, we can only give supportive treatment. We can help people fight the virus, rehydrating them; and, if they cannot fight it, we can help them feel less alone, and have a more dignified death.
So it will be a very rewarding, if challenging and exhausting, six weeks. Not being with the family for Christmas, for the first time since my first child was born 34 years ago, will be strange and sad. But compared with doing nothing when people’s mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children are dying, day by day, on Christmas day itself, well. It’s a small price to pay.