This post was written on 17th September 2014
I was in the "high risk" area of the treatment center yesterday, where the patients with known Ebola infection are and where we do a great deal of our work — though in very small increments.
The dressing in personal protective equipment (PPE) is a time-consuming operation that feels for all the world like pouring little kids into their hockey uniforms. And just like the little kids, no sooner am I suited up than I need to pee. I must grudgingly acknowledge that there are a few disadvantages to this business of aging.
Anyway, once you are wearing the non-breathable plastic suit, double gloves, over-the-head mask, fogged-up goggles, and heavy rubber boots, it's a slow, galumphing race against time in the 90+ degree ambient heat of the afternoon. You have to move with great deliberation in order to prevent any contact that could jeopardize the integrity of your protective gear or that of your partner — no falls, no tears, no wasted movements, no rush — but you must still work to get the most out of your time to accomplish as many of the necessary tasks as possible. Everything must be done before you melt or pass out from the heat in the totally non-breathable outfit.
MSF team members don protective gear in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, 11th September 2014 © P.K. Lee/MSF
Our purpose for this trip into the high risk area was the discharge of a disabled female patient — blind, elderly, unable to walk, but, miraculously, an Ebola survivor! She had been distinctly reluctant (read: repeatedly refused) to leave the Ebola Treatment Centre (ETC) despite her recovery from the virus and her prolonged stay among the “confirmed”. Who knows what kind of life she’d be returning to in her village? Perhaps she is utterly isolated by her incapacities. Perhaps she has no food. She is certainly very thin. Here in the ETC she received three squares daily without fail; she heard friendly, caring greetings and encouragement from weirdly dressed beings unidentifiable even to one another at times, but who cares what they look like when you’re blind?
In the end, she really was unable to stand or walk, so needed to be carried to the shower and then outside on a series of stretchers — one for inside before the shower, another to go outside, and a third for outside, which I carried with another nurse. This solution was certainly not optimal if you are worried about your back, as I am, but it’s hard to discuss one’s personal decrepitude while wearing several layers of sweat and plastic, so I shut up and did it. I was relieved to awaken today so far unscathed.
That trip into the high-risk area lasted over an hour, and though I didn’t do much, being new and quite uncertain, I was quite exhausted and actually shaking when I came out. I believe I found my limit.
Postscript on this patient, in case you are as worried about her as I have been: Health promoters, MSF’s version of do-everything social workers, took her four hours toward home in an MSF vehicle. A nephew was contacted, who met her and agreed to accompany her the remaining three-hour distance to home. MSF paid for both his and her transportation. She returns to her other life—she’s recovered from Ebola, but we have no way of knowing what kind of future awaits her.
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