Ebola: ‘Nothing can prepare you for the look in a patient’s eyes’

Publicado: 19 diciembre 2014 11:02 CET

Ebola: ‘Nothing can prepare you for the look in a patient’s eyes’

There’s no such thing as a good day when you’re treating Ebola patients, writes Sarah Robinson, a nurse with the British Red Cross Society, working in the Red Cross Ebola treatment centre in Kenema, Sierra Leone.

Whenever I get home from the Ebola treatment centre (ETC), one of my fellow team members always asks how my day was. I'm never sure how to answer.

Working in an ETC doesn't seem to be a job where you can say you had a great day or an awful day. I love my job immensely; the national staff I work with and the patients I care for are all inspiring. I've learned so much from them and I know I will continue to do so.

The multitude of daily challenges we experience makes the job interesting and varied. Despite this, when the reply, “I had a good day” enters my mind, the words always stick in my throat.

The work itself is physically and mentally tough. There is no room for error when dressing in personal protective equipment (PPE) – the clothing we wear when treating Ebola patients.

We check each other to make sure our skin is not exposed before we enter the treatment areas and we’re constantly checking as we move throughout the various sections of the unit.

A tiny hole in the PPE or a tear in the glove could lead to exposure to the virus so we have to be incredibly vigilant.

Comfort amid fear

The second you have all your protective clothing on, you start to sweat. Temperatures inside the suit can reach up to 45 degrees Celsius.

Staff can't stay inside the centre for more than an hour at a time, after which it becomes too unsafe due to the heat.  

Nothing can prepare you for the look in a patient’s eyes who is suffering from Ebola. As a nurse, I see their fear.

We attempt to comfort patients as best we can and, as a team, we give the best nursing and medical care possible.

I touch a shoulder or hold a hand, offer words of reassurance as best I can, give medication and hope that people will become strong enough to fight off this virus. When they don't, it's incredibly sad.

I looked after a two-month-old baby several days ago who had Ebola. In the centre, I sat in my PPE and fed her from a bottle. A small spark of hope rose in me as she took her milk, opened her eyes, and grasped my finger.

Despite this, she became too ill and died two days later. I cried that night. Despite her death being 'medically' expected, there is always hope in me that patients will beat the odds and pull through. And sometimes they do.  

Success stories

Since I arrived at the end of November, many patients have been discharged. These are happy moments. Two sisters left the ETC recently, one of whom, in the early days of her admission looked like she wouldn't pull through.

Despite this, every day she became stronger and in her final days at the centre she would smile, wave at me and always ask for more food.

It was good to see these children eating, drinking and getting stronger by the day! Last weekend, five healthy children were discharged from our kindergarten – the area where we treat children with Ebola. It was a great moment for them and of course, our team.

A mother and her baby also left recently. The mother was a picture of happiness as she left with her child, both of them healthy and able to go home.

The team morale is good and everyone looks after one another. National staff and international workers – we’re all working for the same outcome, all fighting the same fight.

The national staff are amazing. The dedication they show to their hospital and job is inspiring. They are incredibly welcoming to international workers and I've made some wonderful friends.

I feel my time spent here is definitely worthwhile. We take strength in the difference we make. Despite this, more staff are still needed to work in the ETC. There is still much work to do in Sierra Leone to curb and ultimately end the Ebola epidemic.

Once my four-week mission is over, I hope to return to Sierra Leone. There are many ups and downs but this is life working in an ETC. Sad moments, happy moments but ultimately, something I am grateful to be a part of.