Why I went to fight Ebola… three times

Published: 28 August 2015 10:43 CET

The Ebola outbreak is far from over. The disease reared its head in Liberia after the country had been declared Ebola-free. Sierra Leone has not recorded a case in weeks, however, hundreds of people continue to be monitored after coming into contact with an Ebola sufferer. In Guinea, cases, although minimal, continue to surface. There is no room for complacency by the general public or responders.  

Michelle Gundry, an intensive care nurse from Britain, has worked at the Red Cross Ebola treatment centres in Sierra Leone on three occasions. The mother-of-two recalls why she felt the need to help and the humanity that she found.

I’d never worked in a humanitarian crisis before. It wasn’t something I’d ever thought about doing.

I couldn’t ignore the images or stories in the media from West Africa. I had the skills and knowledge to help, so there were no excuses not to.

My two daughters weren’t very happy me. They asked: “Why you?”

I would explain that every nurse or doctor who went to help was someone's mother, father, brother or sister.   

Others told me that I was crazy to go and that I could bring Ebola back to the UK. Having seen and heard the stories in the media, I felt compelled to do something.

Wearing my armour

My first stint at the Red Cross treatment centre in Kenema, back in December, was horrific. There was a lot of death.

Ebola does not discriminate. It doesn’t care if you’re young, old, male or female.   

There was so much desperation in people’s eyes. It was essential to stay focused and keep track of time. There was no margin for error. 

While I was in Kenema, there was a large outbreak of Ebola in the neighbouring district of Kono. The government hospital there couldn’t cope with the growing number of Ebola patients.

A Red Cross team went to the hospital to provide help. They worked hard to clean and disinfect the hospital and all patients suspected of having Ebola were immediately sent to our treatment centre in Kenema.

Meanwhile, the Red Cross built a temporary holding centre on the hospital grounds to separate suspected Ebola patients from non-Ebola patients.  

Along with another nurse and a doctor, I headed to Kono to strengthen the team and to staff the holding centre.

People were really scared and wouldn’t always tell us the full extent of their symptoms. They were frightened about going to our treatment centre.

They had heard stories about people only being sent there to die. That was one of the main challenges we had to face: fear and mistrust.

On my next trips to Sierra Leone, people would come to our treatment centres if they had Ebola symptoms.

Word had spread that the care we offered was good. Overcoming fear and mistrust was a huge achievement for the Red Cross.

Why I had to go back

I was moved by people’s humanity, particularly the patients’. They would help each other despite feeling desperately ill themselves.

There was one young lady who survived Ebola after staying at our treatment centre.  

But when she arrived home, her 18-month-year-old baby was sick, severely malnourished and dehydrated. He had Ebola.  

We desperately tried to save him, but it was no good. I remember when he died, his mother just sat there rocking and sobbing.

I covered his small body in a white cloth and we said a prayer while I held her hand. It was all I could do.

On another day, I found a young woman lying on her stretcher with a large amount of fresh blood underneath.

I walked over and lifted her legs. She had miscarried. She didn't even know she was pregnant. 

Words cannot do justice to just how horrific it was at times. When you’re there in the moment, you just get through it, somehow.

It’s only when I came back to the UK after my first deployment that I realized just how horrible it all was.

That said, spending time with Sierra Leoneans and working in the Ebola crisis was one of the greatest life lessons I could ever get.

That’s why I felt I had to go back: after seeing their extraordinary acts of humanity in awful conditions, the Sierra Leoneans were now part of my family. 

Witnessing the change  

Going back for my second and third deployments in April and June this year was very cathartic. 

The situation had improved – markets were thriving and schools had reopened.

It was so lovely to see children in colourful uniforms, everything was different: the way people interacted, the way they looked.

You could see the changes in the local Red Cross staff as well. At the beginning of the outbreak, they had been worried about putting on the protective suits.

But after months of experience they were far more confident and had learned new skills that will be invaluable as the country rebuilds its health system. 

I also spent a lot of time teaching them as most of our patients weren’t Ebola positive, but still needed to be isolated if they displayed any symptoms.

This meant we had many patients with other conditions. So I trained my colleagues in how to treat conditions they were unfamiliar with.

How much longer

Ebola may not be getting the same level of media attention as before, but that’s not to say that the battle is over.

I was deeply saddened to learn of the recent cases in neighbouring Liberia when the country had previously been declared Ebola-free.  

It shows that we cannot rest until we have defeated Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Only then can people truly resume their normal lives.

There’s a part of me that will always be in Sierra Leone. I look forward to the day when the country is Ebola-free and I can return in happier circumstances.

That day can’t come soon enough.