Day one in Sierra Leone
As we landed in Sierra Leone, the mood on the aircraft changed and people looked tense and worried. We had spent the past seven hours shouting at each other above the noise of the engines; the silence in the back of the C17 was deafening.
To my shame ‘OMG, what have I done?’ was my first thought as I placed my first foot on Sierra Leone soil. Pictures of my wife Wendy and my three children, Elliott, India and Ethan rushed through my head.
As we made our way to the terminal building I noticed a “Welcome to Sierra Leone” sign next to a closed Tourist Information office. Strange the things you notice when you are scared….
Then the paranoia kicked in; as a really helpful porter took my suitcase to the waiting car. He had touched my suitcase and in that brief moment of temporary insanity my mind told me he had Ebola, had touched my suitcase and if I now touched my suitcase I would catch Ebola and die! All total nonsense of course but fear crosses many boundaries of common sense.
A dear friend once told me that if you run away from the problem, it only increases the distance from the solution. Wise words I think so onwards and upwards we go. I had come here to help their ambulance service which before this outbreak did not even exist. Running away was not going to help these people, so that was it.
I am here for five weeks and in that time I aim to leave them better prepared, better trained, better equipped. They need to rapidly recognise and minimise the risk they face daily when attending to and transporting suspected and confirmed cases of Ebola.
The airport security was very strict which surprised me. They checked all of us for Ebola type symptoms because it is possible to bring it in to the country if we had travelled from an area that has Ebola. However, as we had just flown in from Brize Norton I did think we could be considered to be low risk!
A great guy from ISAT collected me at the airport and I thought that we were only about twenty minutes from Freetown. “Sit back; its three hours of hard diving on some interesting roads” said Steve. There were people, a lot of goats, dogs and even more goats everywhere you looked. They just roamed around (the goats not the people).
Further down the road we were stopped by the Police as a hearse type ambulance with a crew in full PPE (personal protective equipment) was bringing a dead body out of a house.
The harsh reality of the devastating effects of Ebola on this impoverished nation suddenly flooded through my head. They had nothing, scraped a living every day, have one of the highest infant mortality rates and a life expectancy of 47 and then Ebola strikes and the world collapses like a pack of cards. Without a lot of help, money, trained clinicians and people with brains the size of NASA this country could be overrun.
We pulled away from the roadblock as the patient was safely moved into the hearse/ambulance in a body bag, courtesy of the men from Mars. Next, the house decontamination team (more men from Mars in full PPE) moved in and began to fumigate the property with chlorine mixed with water which will kill the virus.
So let’s just get this straight; the most deadly virus the world has ever seen can be killed with bleach! The problem is they have no money to buy it or a supermarket to buy it from. “It’s not like the UK” says Steve, “life is hard out here and every day of their life is an enormous struggle”.
Eventually we arrived in Freetown but not before we had driven through some of the poorest, most deprived areas I had ever witnessed. This is my first trip to Africa and the enormous disparity between global wealth and global poverty is no more apparent than here. For Sierra Leone to survive this devastating disease it is going to need help, lots of help.
The fragile Health care infrastructure is at breaking point with local Doctors (of whom there are very few) fleeing the hospitals when they are needed most. Their foreign counterparts arrive from overseas with medical insurance and a medivac ‘get me home if I get sick’ clause in their contracts. The local doctors have no such luxury. If they get sick there are no special treatment arrangements for them. They are expected to risk their lives without any of the benefits the overseas Doctors get. Sadly but some say wisely they have withdrawn their labour…..
When I arrived in Freetown at about 9pm; I had been awake for 40 hours and was in need of a shower and some sleep. We drove through Freetown and a cacophony of noise greeted us before we even saw the city. The sound of shouting and horns blasting is everywhere however unlike home this is all done in a light hearted friendly manner. As I was to find out during my first few days here, the people are some of the most genuinely friendly on the planet. They live on average on $1.25c per day and yet they are very friendly and despite Ebola seem, on the surface, to be happy and just getting on with life.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little scared to be here. Despite the great weather, the friendly people, the amazing beaches, and exotic food, I had willingly travelled 4000 miles to currently one of the most dangerous countries on earth. As I booked in to the hotel the receptionist wished me a “pleasant stay in Freetown”. Leaving in five weeks and returning back to my wife and children without the Ebola virus will do me just fine; helping fight this devastating virus will do me just fine, the weather, food and beaches could wait for another time, a time when this country and its people are free of this disease.
After a disturbed night’s sleep, I awoke at 5am to the sound of calling the faithful to prayer. I had a breakfast of coffee and toast and thought ‘Okay, I am in a country paralysed by Ebola, I have five weeks to try and make a difference. Where in the world do you start?
Unlike other catastrophes the Ebola outbreak is a different animal. In a Tsunami, Earthquake or Volcano eruption the event has normally passed and the risk to the helper is minimised. The Ebola virus is perceived by the world’s press to be highly contagious. As such health care workers and the like, who would normally pour into a country in need were put off coming.
Let’s get to work then, let’s see the ambulance service first. At least I would be in my comfort zone as I have 28 years’ experience in this field of pre hospital healthcare.
The King’s Sierra Leone Partnership (my sponsor for this trip) had supplied me with two drivers Osman (am) and Dauda (pm). I didn’t realise on my first morning just how important these two young men would be to me.
“Ambulance station Headquarters please” I said to Osman.
A look of disbelief instantly engraved on his face. “We don’t have one Sir”.
“How about the ambulance station?”
“We don’t have one Sir” he replied.
“Err okay; do you have any ambulances in Freetown?”
“Yes Sir”. Good, we were getting somewhere!
“Do you know where they are”?
“Can you take me to see them?
You get the picture, this was like pulling teeth. It was painful!
I was taken to the Fire Station Headquarters. In their car park round the back, sheltering from the burning sun I found the Sierra Leone Ambulance Service (Freetown & Western Area Division).
16 ambulances, 16 drivers and 22 nurses
“What in the world are you all doing out here? I asked the “Ebola Warriors”.