A Queensland doctor who joined a Red Cross effort to help battle west Africa’s deadly Ebola outbreak has spoken of the paranoia gripping health workers in the virus zone.
But that paranoia might just be what is keeping them safe.
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Redlands Hospital anaesthesiologist Jenny Stedmon has been based at the Kenema Government Hospital, about 300 kilometres east from the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, since August 24.
Dr Stedmon said nobody felt “entirely safe” as the outbreak continued to take its toll on the region, with more than 2000 deaths reported.
“People I worked with yesterday are contracting the disease, or their family members, so there is a constant grief and anxiety here,” she told Fairfax Media from Sierra Leone.
“Everyone practises a no touch policy here, which as you can imagine is very isolating and strange.”
Dr Stedmon, who will have to be quarantined for three weeks upon her return to Australia, said that policy extended to colleagues.
“My Colombian doctor colleague left today after his month here and we all saw him off, however not a hug can be exchanged, only email addresses,” she said.
Dr Jenny Stedmon says health workers in Ebola affected areas are being forced to take extreme measures to stay alive. Photo: Robert Shakespeare
“You could almost say that survival requires paranoia, and it is difficult getting that message through to remote communities and families.
“Imagine trying a few days in Australia without shaking hands, touching someone, sharing a cup with your husband, avoiding any contact with skin and washing your hands in chlorine 40 times a day and you would get the smallest essence of being here in the middle of this crisis.”
Health workers take blood samples for Ebola testing at a screening tent in the local government hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone. Photo: Reuters/Tommy Trenchard
Dr Stedmon said many health care workers – in particular doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians – had died at the Kenema hospital.
“In the early phases this was linked to lack of knowledge of it being Ebola, but the deaths that have occurred since I arrived remain a source of anxiety for other health care workers,” she said.
A burial team removes the body an Ebola victim from an isolation ward in West Point, Monrovia. Photo: New York Times
“At the moment we are working alongside national nurses in the triage area … and there is a physical barrier separation from the patients and PPE (personal protection equipment) is worn whenever contact could occur.
“The use of PPE gives us a sense of security and safety, and only if a mishap occurs would one feel unsafe.”
The patients, Dr Stedmon said, were “just really sick” and generally just wanted to lie down in their exhaustion.
“There is frequently a cerebral aspect to the disease and they may be confused or agitated, thus the stories of escaping patients,” she said.
“I have seen three survivors being let out of the high risk area on a Sunday afternoon, having beaten the disease, and their faces are a picture of jubilation, but aspirations are simple survival.
“The hopes and dreams of those who are working with these patients extends only to beating the disease also and protecting their families and communities.”
Dr Stedmon said the Red Cross had built a large field hospital for both triage and the treatment of Ebola sufferers, which was due to open on Monday, Sierra Leone time.
“This should ease the burden on the Kenema Government Hospital which has been working tirelessly to care for large numbers of infected patients against the odds,” she said.
“…The local staff are traumatised by their personal experiences of Ebola and are extremely tired.
“Most staff has been working every day since this was first recognised in late April and have also had to contend with deaths of their colleagues, friends and family.
“You can only imagine how they are feeling – totally exhausted – and the cases just keep coming.”