The boy with Ebola who called me mother

Publié: 8 mai 2015 13:42 CET

British nurse Barbara Nichols met Samba while working at the Red Cross Ebola treatment centre in Kono, Sierra Leone. Samba was the only Ebola patient at the centre.

Samba lost his father and a sister to Ebola. His mother died of a heart attack soon after their deaths – the grief was too much to bear, Samba told me.

I met Samba on my first day at the Ebola treatment centre (ETC) in mid-February. He was admitted with Ebola symptoms and was later confirmed to have the deadly disease.

Aged 23, he was the same age as my son, which is perhaps why I took such an interest in his welfare.

He sat behind the fence, on view to all, scared, lonely and bored. He rarely smiled.

He would often take himself off to his tent to rest, but I do wonder if it was to escape living his days out in such a public way as the only Ebola patient.

The days must have been extremely long for him. There was a TV that played DVDs, mostly Chinese war films or cartoons. I’m not sure how much these appealed to him.

Keeping spirits up

Opportunities for meaningful conversations were rare. Nursing rounds took place six times a day, but when you’re dressed in full personal protective equipment (PPE) it’s hard to make conversation.

I did one nursing round every day. Due to the intense heat, time in PPE was limited to an hour.

During this hour, the needs of all patients had to be met. Although Samba was the only confirmed Ebola case, there were other patients suspected of having Ebola.  

Much of the communication that took place between Samba and me was in gestures: a wave, a smile, a thumbs up. In fact, anything that would encourage him to believe that he was strong enough to overcome Ebola.

I had brought a supply of sweets and cereal bars with me from home. These came in very useful as I used them to make up a daily ‘goodie bag’.

My eldest daughter had given me some African-themed postcards. I think she hoped I would use these to drop notes home. Sorry Felicity. They were put to much better use.

I would write a few encouraging words daily on a card and put this in with the sweets that I gave to Samba.

Singing and dancing  

On March 14, one of our doctors got the news everybody had been waiting for. Samba’s blood test for Ebola was negative. He was a survivor.

This news was shouted across the fence. His face broke into the biggest, happiest smile you could ever imagine. His feet started dancing and he shouted with joy – a joy that was felt by everyone at the centre.

The next day Samba had an aptly-named ‘happy shower’ – a shower of 0.05 per cent chlorine solution. All Ebola survivors go through this shower before going home. 

He was then given a new set of clothes, as everything he possessed in the centre had to be burned to prevent cross infection.

Everyone who had been involved in his care, including the staff who worked at the lab analysing the blood samples, was there.

There was singing and dancing. Happiness pervaded the air. It was infectious, an infection everyone was pleased to be a part of. Samba gave a speech thanking all who had cared for him.

He then turned to me and said: “Thank you my mother, for caring.”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I dissolved into tears. It was Mother’s Day in the UK. If I couldn’t be with my own children, then this was not a bad substitute.

Staying in touch  

The Red Cross gave Samba a survivor’s certificate, food, cooking utensils, mattress, money – the means to start again.

By all accounts, he had a rapturous reception when he arrived back in his village.

Sadly this isn’t always the case and survivors are often shunned and become outcasts from their society.

Several days later Samba returned to the ETC to say thank you again. In fact he has been a frequent visitor. His aim now is to get a job.

He lives with a sister and sees it as his responsibility to earn enough to be the breadwinner and pay for his nieces’ education.

He has been put in touch with a survivors group which will hopefully help him to find employment. Last time we spoke, he told me he hoped to get a job at the local hospital.

I returned to England at the end of March. What of the survivor and I? We are in regular contact by phone and text. Hopefully this will continue for many years to come.

I arrived in Sierra Leone carrying three children in my heart. I left carrying four.