I wish I could have touched Ebola patients - SA nurse

2015-04-06 19:19

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Johannesburg - For Laura Mosiah, 32, the worst was not being able to touch patients. The best part was seeing people survive the debilitating virus against all odds.

Laura, from Ballito in KwaZulu-Natal, and Billy Nyaku, 31, of Leokaneng in Limpopo are two professional nurses who were part of a Right to Care team who went to Freetown in Sierra Leone on January 23 this year to treat those infected with the virus.

Two months later, the team returned to South Africa on March 22, with Billy and Laura forever changed by what they saw and experienced.

“For the rest of my life, I will always have this in my heart and in my mind. I think that even if I am old with Alzheimer’s, amnesia, this is one thing that will always be in my heart and my mind,” Laura says.

"We were in Freetown at the Goderich Ebola treatment centre... It was specially built and it was actually the only intensive care unit for Ebola victims in the whole country, so it was quite specialised."

On March 23 2014, the World Health Organisation's (WHO) African regional office reported an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Guinea, on Africa’s west coast. By the end of March, Liberia confirmed its first case of Ebola, followed by neighbouring Sierra Leone on May 25.  

Fast forward one year to March 22, with the WHO reporting the virus’ death toll at 10 326 people, with 24 907 infected. Of the dead,
2 263 are from Guinea, 4 301 in Liberia and 3 747 from Sierra Leone. And in the rest of the world, a combined total of 15 deaths.

Transmission

Transmitted between humans through a victim’s contaminated bodily fluids, the Ebola virus does not discriminate, with healthcare workers, locally and internationally, contracting the virus while treating patients.

Healthcare workers are fully covered from head to toe while treating Ebola patients so they are protected from infection. Billy says it takes between 15 to 30 minutes to put on what is formally referred to as personal protective equipment. For Laura, it was particularly difficult to adjust to this aspect of the job.

"For me it was just the barrier between the patient and I. For example, we were fully dressed in this outfit that looks like we are from outer space, so I felt like maybe the patient didn't see me as a human," Laura says.

"Even speaking to the patient is through a mask, a face shield. For me that was a bit difficult because I'm so used to being hands on, to touching patients with my bare hands."

For Billy, the language barrier with international colleagues at the centre was challenging, especially as they had to work together in performing their duties.

"We worked under difficult conditions. Remember, we were not only South Africans in the ICU. We had guys from South Korea, we had other ones from Italy, we had other nurses from Serbia, we had other ones from England," he says.

"For example, Koreans cannot speak English like us. I thought I couldn't speak English well but when I got there, I thought 'Oh my God, I can speak English'."

Health workers operated in shifts inside the isolation units, replacing each other every two hours, forming part of the 12-hour work day.  The exiting worker would report to their replacement relevant information, but as Billy found out in the beginning, this was far from simple. However, as time went by, the health workers became comfortable with one another and found a way to communicate.  

They were faced with a disease that has an average fatality rate of around 50%, so seeing patients survive Ebola was what Laura found to be the most rewarding part of her time in Freetown.

"You know, patients that are so critical you would think, 'I hope this patient makes it, but I don't think this patient will make it', and suddenly two days later the patient is fine, and maybe three or four days later they've been discharged,” she says.

"It was so amazing to see that people can survive Ebola. There's no cure, there's no patented drug, but everything is experimental of course, but people can survive. That's an amazing feeling."

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has seen countries and organisations from the around the world contribute one way or another in fighting the disease. Billy described it as being part of a global response to a global crisis, an experience he feels is one of the best things that has ever happened to him.

"It was like the whole world has come together you understand, so doing something that everyone is talking about, it was personally rewarding. You know what you are doing there makes a huge difference globally," he says.

"When this opportunity came I was like 'Let me go there and be part of history'. I know a lot of healthcare workers died, but for me to be there, it can be rewarding to me, rewarding to the country and the world. If we didn't go there, who must go there?"

Both Billy and Laura say life in Freetown is impossible for South Africans to imagine, with schools having been shut since September last year, and university students found either at home or at the treatment centres in an attempt to sustain themselves.

Billy says his return to South Africa was bitter-sweet, as he felt he had unfinished business in Freetown, where he represented his country and made an impact on the lives of others.

“I'm a bit sad honestly, because I didn't want to come home. I wanted to come home when Sierra Leone has been officially declared Ebola free. For me to come home, when that has not happened, I'm sad...it was heart breaking for me,” he says.

“We went there as soldiers. Before I left for Sierra Leone, people were looking at me, many members of the public were saying we will be repatriated to South Africa in body bags, so I was like ‘No, I'm a soldier, I'm going there. I have compassion for people’."

Read more on:    sierra leone  |  west africa  |  ebola

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