Donna Wood gave up her Yuletide comforts to go and help fight the spread of Ebola
While most of Donna Wood’s friends spent their Christmas with relatives or on holiday, she spent hers in Sierra Leone covered head to toe in personal protective equipment (PPE), while a colleague dressed as Father Christmas distributed cards to the wards of Ebola-stricken patients.
“It was difficult to be gone over Christmas,” Ms Wood admits. “I worked a late shift, but I did get to phone my family in the morning, although it was hard to even contemplate it was a holiday back home amid all that was going on.”
“It was hard to even contemplate it was a holiday back home amid all that was going on”
By 25 December 2014, Ms Wood had spent four of her five weeks in Sierra Leone as part of a UK government initiative, which sent more than 130 NHS employees to treat the Ebola outbreaks that have plagued West Africa. The doctors and nurses had spent two weeks prior to departure training in York to simulate the conditions they would experience in Sierra Leone, such as giving care in full PPE in 30-degree heat.
“I felt privileged to have the opportunity to have that residential training - the same training given to the military staff at York. You can tell that the trainers are very experienced. They set up a hospital at the military base to look like the one we would be working in, and they often put the temperature up as high as they could. I think acclimatising to wearing the PPE in that heat was the most difficult part, but by the end I did feel totally prepared, although until you get into the actual situation you never truly know what to expect.”
“I think acclimatising to wearing the PPE in that heat was the most difficult part”
Ms Wood was head nurse at the Kerry Town hospital, which entailed managing and coordinating staff, as well as the five wards they operated on, in addition to donning PPE daily to treat patients.
“One of the hardest things about the PPE was the communication barrier it created. We can’t make eye contact since our eyes are covered, which is something I think we take for granted in communication. Since our mouths are covered as well, they can’t see our lips move, and we are quite muffled when we talk, regardless of the language barrier. We must have also looked quite scary to them, especially the children.”
Ms Wood has a background in prison nursing, where she worked before her current position as a senior sister. She feels her experience in prison nursing has helped her deal with unpredictable situations.
To travel to Sierra Leone, she believes one must be ready to accept a challenge, as well as the fact that it will be nothing like any previous nursing experience. “I knew it would be challenging,” she says. However, she stresses that it is only something you need basic nursing training and an ability to adapt to do.
“An ambulance would pull up in Sierra Leone and you would have no idea who would show up”
“I’m used to being organised and knowing who is coming to the ward each day - but an ambulance would pull up in Sierra Leone and you would have no idea who would show up,” she says. “One day an ambulance arrived with eight people squashed in the back, one of whom had already died. It is so different to anything you could possibly imagine - it’s a horrifying disease. But I knew I was helping to make a difference and getting to interact with such incredible staff and patients, and that made it worth it.”
Ms Wood realised that the tools she found most valuable for the endeavour were a great support system and her innate willingness to accept a challenge. In fact, it was an experience she found so life changing for her that she would “go back in a heartbeat” and advises other nurses to travel to Sierra Leone and help as well.
“It’s really just about nurses using their basic nursing skills”
Upon Ms Wood and the team’s arrival, the death rate for Ebola-positive patients in Kerrytown Treatment Centre was 67% - when they left it had reduced to 33%, evidence of how successful their efforts were. “It’s really just about nurses using their basic nursing skills. I have those skills and so do so many other people. We can make a difference and slow the spread of Ebola if we just put them into practice.
“I’m not a hero, just a regular person involved in a humanitarian effort, and while I really just contributed skills in basic nursing care, it helped to slow the spread of this terrible disease.”