Leeds Ebola nurse talks of emotional journey to centre of West African crisis

Research nurse Sarah Rippon back at work in the Infectious Diseases Unit at Leeds St James's Hospital. Picture by Gary Longbottom.
Research nurse Sarah Rippon back at work in the Infectious Diseases Unit at Leeds St James's Hospital. Picture by Gary Longbottom.
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Dressed head to toe in a yellow protective hazmat suit, Sarah Rippon had to hold back her emotions in the face of deadly Ebola.

The Leeds research nurse’s natural urge to comfort her grieving Sierra Leonean colleagues was stopped in its tracks by the country’s ‘no touch’ rule, despite her new-found friends losing their loved ones to the epidemic.

Tears were shed but not shared during the 34-year-old’s six-week stint on the frontline in disease-stricken West Africa, after flying to the heart of the humanitarian crisis near the city of Makeni, in Sierra Leone’s Bombali District, in December.

As part of a team of 19 international doctors, nurses and paramedics tasked with setting up the area’s first Ebola Treatment Centre with the help of the British military, Sarah helped to get the 100-bed facility off the ground before working in a tight-knit unit that helped seven native nurses and four doctors issue treatment.

An average of four-patients-a-day including whole families came to the centre with tell-tale symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting during her time there, yet just over half of the dozens treated left alive.

“One nurse’s brother died of Ebola while we were there and one person lost their husband,” she said. “You look after each other and quite literally are looking after each other’s lives, in checking the equipment, and you become very close with those people but the usual means of touching each other when these horrible things occur were shut down.”

A world away from her job working at Leeds St James’s Hospital’s Infectious Diseases Unit, Sarah faced hours dressed from head to toe in a protective suit in 40 degree heat, delving into the aptly-named ‘hot zone’ to treat stricken patients.

Draining, long days in sweat-inducing plastic suits surrounded by seriously ill locals left aid workers losing litres of fluid in just hours.

Isolated from the wider community, they were shuttled in busses from a guarded compound to the makeshift hospital by locals – the threat of contracting a virus that has claimed over 9,000 West African lives never far away.

Sarah, who lives in Shipley, said: “Our drivers would live in the community and we had an incident where he came to pick us up, became seriously unwell and vomited so we had to follow procedures and get an ambulance out in full PPE and everything was sprayed down. It was nonstop, every day we were checked for our temperatures.”

Meanwhile back in Makeni a local economy stifled by the deadly disease left children wandering the streets and families without income. There was no school and no work.

“The whole country has a ‘no touch’ policy, they have a very tactile culture so it almost looked like a limb had been chopped off. The interaction between the locals was very muted,” she said. “Many people were out of work with not much to do but be scared of being infected by somebody else.”

Sarah was one of around 2,000 UK nationals who volunteered to fly over to West Africa to help tackle the Ebola epidemic, which the World Health Organisation says has infected over 20,000 people almost solely in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Having worked for several years at home and abroad in A&E and infectious diseases, she was among the NHS volunteers selected and given a week of training in Worcestershire.

The quickly assembled teams of workers soon became a huge source of support during tough times, deaths and missing family while abroad.

Sarah, who spent Christmas in Makeni, said: “Just knowing you’re not experiencing it on your own and giving each other time to talk about it and reflect on it was a massive lifeline.

“Nothing quite prepares you for wearing the suits and looking after these people that are dying a horrible death.”

But amid a climate of death and despair, those that survived were celebrated. Sarah explained that a ‘survivor tree’, where those who had shaken off the virus left their handprints, was symbolic of what can be achieved.

In spite of this Sarah, who has come through the 21-day Ebola incubation period virus-free having returned home on January 18, has warned that the work is far from over.

She said: “We are so privileged in this country to have the structures in place to allow support staff to go. The health system out there is on its knees so the least we can do is ply them with nurses and practices that keep doing things safely. What the Government has done is fantastic – it needs to keep up though.”