Yorkshire nurse talks of her time on the frontline of Ebola epidemic in West Africa

Research nurse Sarah Rippon back at work in the Infectious Diseases Unit at Leeds St James's Hospital. Picture by Gary Longbottom.
Research nurse Sarah Rippon back at work in the Infectious Diseases Unit at Leeds St James's Hospital. Picture by Gary Longbottom.
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Dressed head to toe in a yellow protective hazmat suit, Sarah Rippon had to hold back her emotions in the face of deadly Ebola.

The Leeds research nurse’s natural urge to comfort her grieving Sierra Leonean colleagues was stopped in its tracks by the country’s ‘no touch’ rule, despite her new-found friends losing their loved ones to the epidemic.

Tears were shed but not shared during the 34-year-old’s six-week stint on the frontline in disease-stricken West Africa, after flying to the heart of the humanitarian crisis near the city of Makeni, in Sierra Leone, in December.

As part of a team of 19 international doctors, nurses and paramedics tasked with setting up the area’s first Ebola Treatment Centre with the help of the British military, Mrs Rippon helped to get the 100-bed facility off the ground before working in a unit that helped seven native nurses and four doctors issue treatment.

An average of four-patients-a-day, including whole families, came to the centre with tell-tale symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting during her time there, yet just over half of the dozens treated left alive.

“One nurse’s brother died of Ebola while we were there and one person lost their husband,” she said. “You look after each other and quite literally are looking after each other’s lives, in checking the equipment, and you become very close with those people but the usual means of touching each other when these horrible things occur were shut down.”

A world away from her job working at Leeds St James’s Hospital’s Infectious Diseases Unit, Mrs Rippon faced hours dressed from head to toe in a protective suit in 40 degree heat, delving into the aptly-named ‘hot zone’ to treat stricken patients. Isolated from the wider community, they were shuttled in busses from a guarded compound to the makeshift hospital by locals – the threat of contracting a virus that has claimed over 9,000 West African lives never far away.

Mrs Rippon, who lives in Shipley, said: “Our drivers would live in the community and we had an incident where he came to pick us up, became seriously unwell and vomited so we had to follow procedures and get an ambulance out in full PPE and everything was sprayed down. It was nonstop, every day we were checked for our temperatures.”

In Makeni, the local economy became stifled by the deadly disease, with children wandering the streets and families left without income.

Mrs Rippon was one of around 2,000 UK nationals who volunteered to fly over to West Africa to help tackle the Ebola epidemic, which so far has infected over 20,000 people. She said: “Nothing quite prepares you for wearing the suits and looking after these people that are dying a horrible death.”

But amid a climate of despair, survivors were celebrated. Mrs Rippon described a ‘survivor tree’, where people who had been cleared left handprints.

In spite of this Mrs Rippon, who has come through the 21-day Ebola incubation period virus-free having returned home on January 18, has warned the work is not over. She added: “The least we can do is ply them with nurses and practices that keep doing things safely. What the Government has done is fantastic – it needs to keep up though.”

A VIRUS THAT HAS KILLED MORE THAN 9,000

The Ebola virus is fatal in 50 to 90 per cent of cases.

Symptoms start between two and 21 days after infection, and can include a rash, headaches, fever, diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach pain. As the condition progresses patients bleed internally and can then bleed from the nose, mouth and ears.

The World Health Organisation has recently approved a new test to detect the disease, which takes 15 minutes as opposed to the 12 to 24 hour present test. The ReEBOV Antigen Rapid Test Kit is based on detection of the Ebola protein in the blood.

Anyone with symptoms developed within 21 days of coming back from West Africa should stay at home and call 111 or 999 immediately.