Last weekend, autumn leaves shone against a pencil grey sky, backlit by the fading sun. This week the temperature has fallen and now the leaves turn to slush underfoot. In Sierra Leone the rains will be ending, giving way once again to blazing dry heat. I recall when we first arrived there at the start of the year, how the parched orange dust hung in the sky like fog. And here I go to bed with a glance at the clear starlit heavens, wake in the morning to grasses tipped with the first frosts.
I huddle under a warm duvet whilst Georgie kicks off the top sheet, warding off stifling heat.
This week she has stayed out in Lunsar, overseeing her team as the Ebola treatment centre has opened its doors to the first patients. For the first fifty days of her posting she has been preparing for this moment, training and recruiting staff, working alongside partner organisations and the charities that are working tirelessly to halt the relentless onslaught of the disease.
In Freetown, our friends from Ngbotima get by as best they can. “Do not worry,” Patrick tells me, “This Ebola is not for us”. Fengai has applied for work with the British teams. Patrick, Foday and Frank all spend their days canvassing the various foreign organisations searching desperately for scarce jobs. We do not hear from the others, but we understand they are safe.
An email from a student in Makeni: “I must confess things are really going bad here!” He says, “We are all coming out of our way to fight against this deadly virus once and for all. Nothing goes on but Ebola war! To tell you the truth, we are stressed; and thank God people are here to help us. Please pray for us that we get back to our normal lives.”
“I am tired,” Georgie says with characteristic modesty, when I ask how her day has gone, “but it is worse for my team.” She describes how a Sierra Leonean colleague was confronted by an inconsolable mother, convinced he was her lost son returned from the dead. She brought out her son’s clothes and shoes sobbing, “look, they fit you, you must be him, you are my son.”
Later, the same man found two children isolated in a quarantine house. Two brothers, aged just ten and four. Their parents had succumbed to the disease and they were now enduring the 21 day isolation. No-one could visit to take care of them. “And you know there’s no power in those villages,” Georgie says, “When it gets dark out there… they’re just alone, you know, and then you get the snakes and the spiders… They must be so afraid.”
It is the job of Georgie and her team to bring solace and support to these new orphans, and to their communities and to the parents who have lost children of their own. To those that have survived whilst their friends and families have not. To those who have lost all to this disease and must somehow now find a way to move forward.
Over eight weeks Georgie has worked patiently and carefully, assembling her team, seeking the best advice and practice from those already operating, and bringing her own unique combination of skills: her clinical experience in the UK – experience working in community settings and in some of the toughest areas in our society; her years of travels across the world; her time spent over the years in Sierra Leone and, most importantly, the kindness, gentleness, empathy and care that is all her own. She has considered every detail – even down to the brightly coloured scrubs she has had made for her team:
And now the day has finally arrived when the centre is ready and the doors are opened. The sombre tone of the opening ceremony attended by President Koroma contrasts sharply with the joy and happiness I recall from the opening of the chapel in Makeni. Back then I was starting to be concerned by the approach of Ebola, we hadn’t yet learned to fear it.
Georgie sent me this picture of the first patient arriving. It’s one thing to watch this on the news. Another entirely when your wife sends you a photo of it.
Two of the four patients who arrived on the first day passed away by the evening. Georgie and her team tried to contact the family but no-one had attended by the time the burial teams arrived the next morning. Georgie spoke a few words of respect before the bodies were taken and her voice cracks again as she says to me, “What a way for a life to end.”
One of the deceased leaves three orphaned children behind her, and it is Georgie’s job to activate the child protection protocols that will hopefully safeguard these young orphans. She speaks to the sister in law of the deceased who agrees to take care of the children until help can be found. But by the time Georgie has contacted the relevant authorities something has changed.
The abject poverty of Sierra Leone creates a multiplicity of challenges for the responding teams. Poor healthcare systems, weak infrastructure, lack of education and communication all play a part but sadly, sometimes it causes ugly behaviour, too. We can’t ignore that.
When Georgie calls the sister in law to inform her of the procedure, the phone is answered by a man. Orphans are entitled to a package of benefits and something in the man’s tone makes Georgie suspicious of an ulterior motive when he claims to be related to the children. “Can you confirm their names?” Georgie asks.
“I’ll have to call you back with that information,” he says, and the line goes dead.
Georgie is holding up well, but this itself causes her a sense of guilt. To be forced to harden yourself to these daily losses cannot be without cost. She saves some of her sympathy for one of the two patients left in the centre on that first night. A fifteen year old girl, all but alone in a vast treatment tent, her only visitors these space-suited aliens. Racked by her illness she is alone in the dark under an expanse of tarpaulin that rattles and thrashes all night under a bitter tropical rainstorm.
How must she have felt?
It makes me incredibly sad every time I sit down to update this blog at the moment. It hurts when I stop and think about the incredibly happy time Georgie and I spent together out there, and about what is happening there now, what Sierra Leone is struggling with and what Georgie is working on. I can’t do justice in my writing to the amazing work she is doing, the effort she is putting in and the change she is helping to bring about. I think of all of our friends out there, for whom life must carry on regardless, and I think of all those that go to war against Ebola every day. They wake up each morning and fight for the future of West Africa.
Look up at that photo of Georgie again. Somehow, through all this, Georgie keeps smiling. And that’s how I know, as much as I want her back, that she is in the right place at the moment, doing what she needs to be doing.