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After a 21-day monitoring period, Donna and Sharon have been given the ‘all clear’ and are back at their day jobs.
Donna, a mid-wife from Whangarei and Sharon, a community nurse from Wellington were on their first mission as Red Cross aid workers.
Working alongside Red Cross nurses from all over the world, the pair supported the Kenema government hospital that had been overwhelmed by Ebola patients.
Sharon says it was not safe for Red Cross medical staff to work in the government hospital itself but they were able to help train and support the local staff.
“30 of the hospital’s medical staff had already died from Ebola. The staff that did turn up to work were scared, depressed and tired. To be able to support, train, coach and reassure the staff that they were doing a great job was really important.”
The Red Cross team set up a two-stage triage tent outside the hospital to manage patients, and at the same time built, equipped and staffed Red Cross’ first Ebola hospital in the jungle, 18kms outside Kenema.
Donna’s first shift working with confirmed Ebola patients was to go in and certify the death of a nine year-old boy.
“It was pretty horrible. The only positive thing I could think of was that I hadn’t got to know that little boy beforehand because I’d just arrived. I think it would’ve been hugely different had I actually known him.”
The management of dead bodies is crucial to isolating the disease.
Sharon says the dead body management team dealt with the deceased in the most dignified way possible. Bodies were disinfected with chlorine, put in two body bags and taken to the morgue. The morgue was built with a large window on the side for families to look in, confirm the identity of their loved ones and mourn for their loss before the body was buried.
14-hour days and working in hot, humid conditions wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was demanding but Sharon says that survival moments certainly lifted the spirits of everyone.
“In our time there we saw the mortality rate fall from 70-90% to 55%.”
“If a patient was deemed cured after a thorough process of monitoring their temperature and health they would have a ‘happy shower’ with real soap and water rather than chlorine.”
The patient is then discharged with food and fresh clothes and taken back to their home. They are given a discharge certificate and a health delegate from the hospital accompanies them, shakes their hand and hugs them to reassure to the community that they are healthy and free of Ebola.
Over the four weeks in Sierra Leone, the two nurses say they were a great support for one another.
“At times it got a little overwhelming. That’s when it was great to have Sharon as a buddy to sound off and debrief,” Donna says.
“New Zealand Red Cross has been fantastic. We were in contact with them every day and anything we needed they did their best to support us,” Sharon says.
When asked if they would go back to West Africa to further support the Ebola response, both don’t think twice. “Absolutely” is the resounding response.
To get on top of the disease West Africa urgently needs more isolation units, beds, trained medical staff, funding, logistics and community intervention.
As their first mission Donna and Sharon are incredibly proud of their achievements in Kenema and they are grateful to New Zealand Red Cross donors and supporters who make their work possible.
Donna and Sharon were working in West Africa as part of the New Zealand Red Cross delegate programme which has been running since 1960. The programme is currently supported by funding from New Zealand Aid Programme through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.