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In mid-October 2014, I arrived in the Sierra Leonean city of Kenema, a place rich in history, and abundant natural resources (diamonds, coffee beans and cocoa). Unfortunately, many of the local inhabitants have fallen victim to Ebola virus disease, an infectious and, as yet, incurable and rapidly fatal affliction. Many of Sierra Leone's doctors, nurses and entire families have died more or less overnight.
Of course many told me, "don’t go there, you’re crazy". But then I recalled a book I had read about Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “"In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing." Those words gave me the courage to do something to help.
Upon arrival at Kenema, I was assigned the CHM Manager’s role: “Programme Manager for Community Health Mobilisation, ETC Discharges and Psychosocial Support”. The ETC stands for the Ebola Treatment Centre, which is wholly operated by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and this is the place to where I go and work every day.
I lead a team of local staff who take their job very seriously. They are simply fantastic at what they do. There’s Jestina and Ibrahim, Ernest, Abdul, Kapu, Edward and Sandy. We are a strong and energetic team. Anyone entering our CHM tent knows that this is where the action takes place. I work closely alongside a very talented Norwegian colleague, Anne-Kristina Jensen; we work hand-in-glove. Actually, in saying this, we are not permitted to touch each other, not even a handshake. Entering the ETC, you must don “scrubs and gumboots” and wash your hands on 0.05% chlorine. These are the rules everyone must stick to.
In our team we are responsible for all the discharges from the ETC. This means alive patients - who we refer to as “survivors” and who leave on the righthand side of the ETC, and sadly, those who die, whom we bury with as much dignity as possible in our graveyard on the lefthand side of the ETC. So our work is filled with moments of great elation when a patient survives and emerges from their “happy shower” finally able to go home, and also with great sadness when another victim to EVD is carefully lowered into their grave.
I am not a very emotional type of guy (at least I didn’t think I was), but here I have shed tears often. None of the visitors, relations or staff who have visited our cemetery have walked the lonely path away from it with dry eyes. However on the other hand, my heart has rejoiced and my skin tingles with goose-bumps when I farewell a departing survivor as we load them into a Red Cross pick-up, filled with bags of rice, new clothes and bedding for their journey home. Yet tragically, some survivors are completely bereft at this moment; their "happy shower" is not happy at all. One woman recently entered the ETC with her three children and left three weeks later without them… they all died one after another before her eyes.
The plan at the moment is to beat this disease using “the five pillars”, namely, Social Mobilisation, Contact Tracing, Treatment, Psychosocial Support and Safe and Dignified Burials. I am really involved with the last two. Safe burials are in fact the cornerstone to beating this disease. That is because at the time of death, the viral load of an infected patient is at its peak and anyone handling a body around that time, is highly susceptible to the contagion.
We employ four gravediggers, Bobor, Mohamed, Amara and Joseph. Gosh, they work hard; there is a lot of earth to shift in creating a grave. If ever one of them is not present, I step in and lend a hand when possible. There is no chance to contract Ebola while digging – it is new ground cleared from the surrounding jungle. A thought crossed my mind a while ago… probably there are not too many nurses around the world digging graves for their patients. But I am not one of those precious people to sit and watch others work. I never have been. And, I think a good dose of manual labour enriches the soul. You dig with pick and shovel under the hot west-African sun, the sweat streams down your face, your heart pounds in your chest, but it does you good.
The ETC graveyard has unfortunately been expanding rapidly, but our team is determined that it will become a place of dignity, a place of quiet repose where those who have died from EVD can rest in peace, their suffering over.
Our aid worker programme is partly supported by funding from New Zealand Aid Programme through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.