Nurse Volunteers at Ebola Clinic

ebola nurseCotterstock resident Mandy Blackman, an advanced nurse practitioner at Kettering General Hospital, volunteered at an Ebola Clinic in Sierra Leone for five weeks earlier in the year. She volunteered through UK-Med, an NGO that enables UK health workers to volunteer their services to a range of countries during times of conflict and catastrophe. She is on standby to go anywhere on trauma or medical response.

Before heading out to Sierra Leone, RedR, a consultancy that trains national aid workers, provided in-country training, where she met the others who would be joining her.

At the Ebola Clinic in Sierra Leone, there were six teams; each with an international nurse and an international doctor alongside 16 national staff who had been sent by the Sierra Leone government to work in the Ebola Clinics.

‘It was a global response, with more people than you would think,’ she said. She joined volunteers working with NGOs from Korea, Denmark, Cuba, Norway, Ireland and the US.

‘We were very lucky being deployed where we were,’ she said. She was located in Kerry Town, just 30km south-west from the capital Freetown. Here she worked with Save the Children and shared facilities with the MoD, with the British and the Canadians. They took a bus to the clinic every day and were only allowed to go back and forth between the clinic and their accommodation.

At the clinic, the six teams were split into six-hour shifts and a twelve-hour night-time shift, with scheduled time allocated to the red zone, where the Ebola confirmed patients were isolated. The nurses each spent 50 minutes at a time in the red zone, and always with ‘a buddy’.

The safety protocols were exceedingly strict. They were required to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) which consisted of full scrubs, steel toe-capped boots, a white butcher’s overall, a face mask, a hood, ski goggles and two or three pairs of gloves. Before they entered the red zone, their equipment was checked by dressers who ensured there were no gaps. The only part of their body which was visible was their eyes.

When they left the red zone, they were sprayed with chlorine, and required to wash their hands every time they removed a single piece of equipment. They were assisted through the process by people who were trained to ensure the medical staff were safe and did it correctly.

‘You have to be responsible to yourself and to others,’ she said. Everything they did had to be checked and rechecked, due to the danger of the virus. Fortunately, they had no incidences of any nurses being exposed to the virus, as their precautions were very strict.

The ‘suspect room’, where those with Ebola-like symptoms were kept, was just as heavily protected.

‘One of the cruel things about Ebola is that it mimics many other viral illnesses,’ she said. Its symptoms are very similar to malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever, and often presents with general flu-like symptoms.

In Sierra Leone their traditional burial rights were a huge problem in the effort to contain the spread of Ebola. The deceased members are traditionally washed by the whole family. This contact with the infectious body spread Ebola very quickly, and to whole families at a time. Although this tradition is sacred to the people of Sierra Leone, there is now more awareness of the dangers it presents for spreading infection.

There have been 8590 confirmed Ebola cases and 3535 confirmed deaths from Ebola in Sierra Leone. However after finding that an electrolyte imbalance was the major cause of death, rehydration saw their survival success rate in Kerry Town improve.

‘It was the rehydration that was the most important thing,’ she said. This allowed them to replace the electrolytes that the patients had lost through vomiting and diarrhoea and so their bodies had the capability to fight off the virus.

When Blackman was in Sierra Leone, she was able to see the end of the acute phase, and while she was there she saw the last patients emerge from isolation Ebola-free.

All patients who are cured underwent a ‘happy shower’, where they were immersed in a chlorine shower, given new clothes and welcomed outside the ward by dancing and singing. All discharged patients were then transported back to their village with new mattresses, household supplies, firewood, water and food packages.

Any of their possessions that could have carried the infection, would have been burned while they were at the clinic. When she left there were no confirmed cases remaining in the area but the unit remains on standby, ready to respond within 48 to 72 hours.

Blackman is on standby to go anywhere on trauma or medical response, and at the time is waiting to hear about whether she is needed in Nepal.

‘I’m in a position when I can do this, and have the skills to do it, and can still return to my job when I come back. With my family grown up, I now have the time to give something back.’

Johanna Carr