Evacuated From Sierra Leone and the Boy I Can’t Forget [press release]

Dr. Sophie Reshamwalla’s time in Sierra Leone was cut short. The Red Cross doctor was evacuated from our treatment centre as a precautionary measure earlier this year. In this blog, Sophie talks about the journey home and the boy she cannot forget.

I can’t stop thinking about Musa. The last time I saw him, he was inside the Red Cross Ebola treatment centre in Kono, doing a strange locomotion dance while singing a song about coconuts.

He has been on my mind ever since I was hastily evacuated from Sierra Leone.

Musa, 10, arrived at the treatment centre frightened and alone. When I first met him in the assessment area, he was trembling and burst into tears. Who could blame him?

Cultural change

Ebola has claimed more than 11,000 lives across West Africa since the outbreak began more than one year ago.

The disease has dramatically altered the cultural landscape of Sierra Leone. People don’t go to parties anymore. There are no hugs, no handshakes. Countless children have been orphaned.

Once we had taken a clinical history from Musa, we realized he was a probable case of Ebola.

This meant that he had been in contact with someone with Ebola and had some symptoms that could be attributed to the virus.

In Musa’s case, he felt feverish and had one episode of vomiting and diarrhoea. He also explained that he had played football in his orphanage with his friend Ibrahim, a six-year-old Ebola orphan.

As he said that, our eyes dropped and our suspicions grew. Ibrahim had tested positive in our treatment centre only a week before.

Ibrahim was scared of the dark and would climb into Musa’s bed at night for comfort.

Thankfully, Ibrahim made a recovery and was recently discharged back to the orphanage.

But the happiness we felt when discharging Ibrahim now turned to trepidation. It dawned on us that before Ibrahim came to our treatment centre, he had probably passed the virus to Musa.

We comforted Musa, gave him some Lego and soft drinks and told him not to be frightened of the people in white suits.

A fateful splash

I last saw Musa on Valentine’s Day and he blew me a kiss from the high-risk zone. Later that evening, I discovered I was to be evacuated back to the UK.

The predicament I found myself in was a combination of bad luck and strict protocols. I had completed my round of all the patients in the evening. While I was carefully and slowly undressing from my protective uniform, something splashed in my eye.

During the round, I had seen and examined nine patients in total, including a young lady who died.

I certified her corpse, removed her intravenous line ready for burial, and continued to see the rest of the patients on the round, including Musa.

In all probability, the splash to my eye was chlorine solution, since I had been sprayed with this from head to toe as soon as I had exited the patient area.

But any potential exposure to Ebola is taken very seriously – a sobering lesson I have learned during my short time in Sierra Leone.

Home too soon

The evacuation began with a seven-hour car ride along bumpy roads to Kerrytown where I was admitted to the British Ministry of Defence hospital.

I was measured up for an isolator – a bubble-like contraption that would keep me in isolation on my air ambulance flight back to England.

I was treated exceptionally well while I waited for my flight at the hospital. I was told that I could wave to the two CCTV cameras in my tent if I needed anything and I was kept fully informed of the discussions held between the UK government, Public Health England, Red Cross, the Swiss evacuation agency, and the British military about my situation.

When I told my mum, she laughed and said: “All this for a bit of chlorine?!”

And then I had a lump in my throat as I thought of Musa, Ibrahim and the thousands of others whose lives have been irrevocably destroyed by the Ebola virus, but who have no evacuation plan to safety.

I felt guilty at the treatment I was being afforded, even as a precautionary measure, while hundreds lay sick and dying in a country whose infrastructure has been decimated.

Schools were yet to reopen, clinics are closed, hospitals are running a minimum service. Access to basic health care, such as vaccinations or maternity services, lies in the precarious hands of a virus that has no cure.

I was disappointed to be leaving so soon, but I fully understood why and was grateful for all the precautions being taken.

I re-entered the UK in ‘the bubble’ – an experience I will never forget. After an assessment at the hospital, which determined I was not showing any symptoms, I was free to return home.

Twenty one days of monitoring passed uneventfully and I had time to reflect. Life for me has now regained some sense of normality having been given the all clear.

What’s less clear is what lies ahead for Sierra Leone.

However, having witnessed first-hand the courage and resilience of the population, especially through the strength of its children, my outlook for this country remains positive.

A dance for Musa

Musa’s first test for Ebola came back negative and he danced with joy. I had to scold him for drinking eight cans of Coca-Cola in 12 hours, but couldn’t suppress a smile as he sang about coconuts and made me promise to dance with him if his final test was also negative.

I was evacuated while Musa was still waiting for his results, so I didn’t get a chance to dance with him or say goodbye.

My dear little Musa. I can’t stop thinking about you. I want your final test to be negative. I want you to grow up, be g and drink less Coke.

And I want you to continue to look after the other children who need your strength, warmth and comfort. In the meantime, I want you to know that wherever you go and whatever you do, my next dance is for you.

Follow up: Musa’s second test for Ebola was also negative. He was discharged and sent home 15 February

Source : International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies