As newly qualified nurses we found ourselves asking an irregular and difficult question: should we go and help combat the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone?
News of the Ebola outbreak deeply upset us.
Our elective in Sierra Leone had been an intense, unforgettable month spent with wonderful patients and dedicated staff, all of whom wanted the opportunity for good health outcomes. We got the sense that Connaught Hospital was at a turning point due to the hard work being put in to enable these outcomes to be achieved. It felt like a hopeful time, considering the significant progress of Sierra Leone after the devastating 11-year civil war ended in 2002.
Almost a year ago the Ebola virus shook West Africa, with catastrophic effects on the populations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
It fast became clear that the Ebola response required two things: equipment and personnel. Working in Sierra Leone during the outbreak of a viral haemorrhagic fever would involve long hours and time away from loved ones in emotionally and physically intense conditions with little to zero pay and significant risk to individual health.
It is the norm for newly qualified nurses to begin their careers in UK NHS Trusts, hospices, the Armed Forces or with private healthcare providers. It is sensible to give considerable thought to where might be the best place to start your career, to how will you achieve your full potential and be exposed to the best learning opportunities.
“Our strong existing attachments to Sierra Leone meant we seriously considered going out to help”
However, our strong existing attachments to Sierra Leone meant we seriously considered going out to help. As students, we had spent our summer elective in the country’s capital, Freetown, working at the main adult referral hospital, Connaught. In addition, we had worked with the King’s Sierra Leone Partnership pairing with local staff on improvement projects to strengthen health infrastructure, education and resources within Connaught Hospital.
As a newly qualified nurse, your knowledge is limited, with much of the learning occurring on the job. Nursing education consists of learning core clinical skills, compassionate care, anatomy and research, but rarely do we learn how to address public health issues and health crises.
We asked ourselves if it was possible at this stage to have the skills necessary to affect change in the wake of the Ebola crisis.
“Rarely do we learn how to address public health issues and health crises”
The answer was no, yet this did not stop us feeling compelled to return to Freetown. However, after many sleepless nights, both of us decided to remain in the UK and build up a broad skill set that would enable us to become nurses who are not only an effective part of the NHS but who can respond in crisis situations.
Our career aspirations have now been shaped, with this aim at the centre of it. We chose a 12-month ward rotation and an acute medical unit respectively for our first jobs and aim to complete the Diploma in Tropical Nursing and work in critical areas such as A&E, ICU and infectious diseases.
However, many of these areas require considerable post-qualification experience, so none of this will be immediate. It is frustrating to know the road to reaching your end-goal will be a long one, prescribed by a necessity to fit detailed specifications.
“For now, all we can do is continue on our journey to becoming the nurses we feel we need to be”
For now, all we can do is continue on our journey to becoming the nurses we feel we need to be. We remain involved with the King’s Sierra Leone Partnership (KSLP), an organisation comprised of local and international volunteers who were the first to respond to the crisis that were at the forefront of its management since far before news of Ebola hit the headlines.
We joined their Ebola response from London, lobbying for international support, petitioning for the re-opening of flight paths, writing to MPs and raising awareness about the disease and its impact.
We recently teamed up with a group of friends that are also passionate about the cause and raised over £5,000 for KSLP.
However, internal conflict still presides in both of us. As nurses, shouldn’t we go where nurses are most needed?
“As nurses, shouldn’t we go where nurses are most needed?”
Our thoughts frequently turn to the Sierra Leoneans we met, worked with and had the privilege to know, and to the guilt at not being with them when they need us the most. We are lucky to live in a country where an outbreak of this magnitude should hopefully never devastate our country like it has Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. We are lucky to have the comfort of the NHS and a functional healthcare system.
Let us not forget that we can choose whether or not to nurse within a struggling healthcare system. There are brave individuals striving hard to achieve what we in the UK often take for granted - good health outcomes. Both of us look forward to the day we can join them in the fight.
Sneha Baljekar and Alexandra Malet