British doctor describes working on the Ebola frontline in Sierra Leone

Dr Daniel Cooper Credit: Department of Health

NHS volunteer Dr Daniel Cooper writes for ITV News from Sierra Leone about what it's like to work on the frontline fighting Ebola.

The last six weeks have been simultaneously the hardest and most professionally and personally rewarding of my life.

I am part of the second wave of NHS volunteers deployed to Sierra Leone as part of the UK government response to the Ebola epidemic and growing humanitarian crisis in West Africa.

As a renal and general medical doctor back home, I’m used to being able to offer our patients the best life saving drugs and cutting edge treatments, so adapting to work in a resource-limited setting for the first time was a real challenge.

The situation in Sierra Leone is dire. The fragile economy present before the epidemic has been destroyed - made worse by falling literacy levels and failing infrastructure as schools and hospitals close.

In the midst of this, our group of 20 doctors, nurses and paramedics were deployed to a town in north central Sierra Leone called Makeni, to set up, open and operate a 100-bed Ebola Treatment Centre funded by the Department for International Development and run by the NGO International Medical Corps.

Our training stood us in good stead, but nothing could have prepared me for the experiences and the sights I have seen during this time.

Very little is known about this devastating disease, and the treatments we offer have little evidence beyond supporting patients cardiovascular systems and treating co-existing infections such as malaria, which is endemic in West Africa. Bear in mind all of our care takes place in 30C heat in full protective equipment.

The team in full protective clothing Credit: Daniel Cooper/Twitter

As well as the constant anxiety around personal safety, the biggest worry for me was getting used to working with children. Especially as we know that when children under the age of five contract Ebola the mortality rate is very high – it’s a death sentence.

Baby Mary, who died of Ebola after being readmitted with the disease Credit: Dr Emily Bayne

This would prove even harder for me due to the limits on the treatments available to us. Hopefully over the coming weeks I can share some of these frustrations, as well as the beautiful moments that come with sending survivors back home to their families.

Celebrations as the first Ebola survivors are discharged Credit: Hannah McReynolds

The personal stories are the ones that will stay with me forever – for good and bad reasons.

The inherently caring nature of the Sierra Leonean people means that close family members care for victims of the disease when they are unwell.

Unfortunately, this is the point when patients are at their most infective - leading to the heartbreaking situation where carers then contract Ebola resulting in a self-propagating spiral of whole families, and communities, being devastated.

Because of this, a crucial part of our role is gaining the trust of the community. They need to be able to trust us and know that if they come to us for help they will be cared for and we will do everything we can to get them home safe to their families whilst isolating them to stop the spread of Ebola.

Another large part of our role was training the national nurses, who will form the backbone of the team as different international staff come and go.

Training the national nurses at the Ebola Treatment Centre Credit: Dr Emily Bayne

As well as patient stories, we also have to live with the reality that the nurses come from areas where Ebola is rife. Every one of them has lost friends and family members, and we frequently have situations where we lose them for a 21-day quarantine period if someone close to them becomes infected.

I hope that this blog will help to share some of the realities and bring home the seriousness of this epidemic.

I also hope that by hearing about the success stories and happy moments, people will realise that the UK government and a group of highly motivated and dedicated NHS volunteers are making a genuine difference on personal and community levels.