By: Catherine Kane
Tonight, on a sticky and slightly humid evening in Freetown, Sierra Leone, I met Patrice, a nurse practitioner who has returned from working in the Red Cross Kenema Ebola treatment centre. Six weeks ago, she left her family, her job, and her 60 kilogram Great Pyrenees-Mastiff mix dog, to become part of a team that is combating a deadly disease that threatens the fabric of this and surrounding countries.
Patrice, a Canadian Red Cross volunteer, has responded to a number of disasters around the world and said this mission has been both the most remarkable and the most stressful. Red Cross workers in the Ebola treatment centres take extraordinary precautions in their work to ensure a safe environment. Before each shift in the high risk area, Patrice and her colleagues spent about 15 minutes dressing in layers of personal protective equipment and being checked by a Sierra Leone Red Cross Society volunteer to ensure that no trace of skin was showing. In temperatures that exceed 40 degrees Celsius inside the suit, Patrice spent one hour at a time with patients confirmed to have Ebola. Wrapped in layers of Tyvek, she fed a one year old baby, held a frightened six year old and sang him “O Canada”, and shared news with other patients, while encouraging them to take in the liquids that could save their lives.
Smiling, Patrice told me how eager the patients were to talk to her each day. She brought them stories from the outside world, as well as messages of encouragement and hope from her friends. Ebola experts indicate that rapidly seeking treatment at the onset of symptoms, consuming 4.5 litres daily of oral rehydration solution daily, and having a sense of hope, are all factors that increase Ebola survival rates. For Patrice, being the bearer of well wishes from her generous-hearted friends was a gift.
Her eyes water, remembering one particular experience. She had received news the day before that a young man whom she’d known all her life, a friend of her son, had died suddenly of an unknown cause. As she entered the treatment centre, Aruna, a 26 year old Sierra Leone man who had battled Ebola for three weeks approached Patrice, asking where she had been the previous day; for patients, staff are lifelines not only in the clinical sense, but they become friends who spend their rest time standing at a safe distance on the outside of the centre, chatting with, and encouraging, patients.
Upon hearing Patrice’s story, Aruna, who was slowly recovering from the fight of his life, took her double-gloved hands in his own and looked through her goggles into her eyes. He asked her to send a message to her son and to the family of the young man back in Canada: “You have cared for us and brought us messages of support. Please tell them that Aruna sends his love and his condolences to them in their time of need.” Patrice remembers her goggles beginning to fog with tears, touched and overwhelmed that someone in such great pain and need could focus his attention on a family a world away. This is humanity.
Speaking with Patrice, I recognized my good fortune. I was one of the first to offer her psychosocial support just through listening. And I have seen the light of generosity: her gift of expertise and caring and Sierra Leone’s great spirit of survival and caring for others. If you see Patrice, give her another hug from me.
Catherine Kane, a senior communications officer for the Red Cross was recently deployed to Sierra Leone to support beneficiary communications initiatives as part of the Red Cross response to the ongoing Ebola outbreak.