There are few heart-warming moments inside an ebola ward. For Géraldine Begué, a nurse from Luxembourg, one was peering through the goggles of her plastic isolation suit to see a five-year-old girl “acting as mother” to a two-year-old.
Both had been infected with the virus that has killed almost 700 people across West Africa in the latest outbreak. First discovered in Central Africa in 1976, there is still no known cure. It makes victims bleed through their eyes as their bodies dissolve. Last week, there were only two days in the clinic on which nobody died.
“They die in quite a lot of pain,” said Ms Begué, outside a purpose-built clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Kailahun, close to the border with Liberia and Guinea, where the outbreak started.
“They die with eyes open, their mouths open,” she added, haunted by the memories from just 10 days on the ward in Sierra Leone. “I keep seeing these people because they really look terrible. I think about it a lot.”
Of 131 patients admitted since June 25 only 12 have been discharged.
Cut off from the outside world to stop the spread of the disease, their only proper human contact is with each other. Sick adults care for orphaned children, children care for babies, and friendships form among the doomed.
“They really get to know each other,” said Ms Begué. “Sometimes they move beds to be closer to each other. Last week we had three children who were the same age and we gave them toys and dolls to play with.” Two of them recovered, one is still infected.
The medical staff who care for them are hidden behind layers of latex gloves and head-to-toe protective suits, which take about 15 minutes to don every time they cross into the “high-risk zone”, where the sick are quarantined.
It makes it much harder to comfort the dying, Ms Begué said, because the staff never spend more than three hours in the ward at a time.
“It makes you feel as if you are never doing enough, but it’s really, really hot,” she said. “You have plastic from your face to your feet, you sweat three litres. When your goggles start to fog up, if you can’t see anymore you have to leave, because you are not safe.” (Read more…)