Rossland nurse on the front lines of Ebola outbreak

“It is an amazing upbeat place and I know that sounds surprising. It certainly surprised me.” - Patrice Gordon

Smiling faces and happy attitudes is not what someone would expect to see at an Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone.

But that is just what nurse practitioner and Rossland native, Patrice Gordon, found when she arrived.

She has been working in the Kenema treatment centre for the last couple of weeks and still has some time left in West Africa.

After more than a few dropped calls and some spotty cell phone reception from Sierra Leone during a phone interview with the Trail Times on Dec. 11, she shared some of her experiences fighting the deadly disease.

“It is really intense,” she told the Times. “It is hard to isolate one particular story. Everyday, they just come at us so fast. Every patient has got a tragedy wrapped up in them.”

One story Gordon shared was one of loss, but also shows those in the centre coming together to support each other.

“We have a one-month old baby in there right now whose mother just died a couple of days ago and it is just tragic,” she said. “The others have pulled together and take care of him.  They will come to us and say, ‘the baby feels really hot,’ and then we pass some Tylenol over the fence. We tell them we will be in there shortly. Everyone is pulling towards the same goal.”

That common goal is what makes the treatment centre an astonishingly happy place to be. Gordon applauded the emotionally healthy environment, despite being surrounded by sickness and loss.

“It is an amazingly upbeat place and I know that sounds surprising,” she said. “It certainly surprised me. There is a huge amount of tragedy and loss and sadness, but it is the good stuff that keeps us going – the people that recover and go home.”

Seeing former patients leave the treatment centre, having been cleared of infection, is one of the main motivators for patients still receiving treatment. Patients support each other when awaiting daily blood test results.

“When someone is getting their blood drawn one day and the result comes the next day, that is a topic of discussion,” said Gordon. “Everyone is hoping that their blood result will be negative and that person will be a recovered Ebola survivor and is no longer susceptible. They can’t get it again and they are safe. It is a wonderful thing.”

There is no specific treatment for patients whose blood has tested positive for the Ebola virus, and Gordon says new patients at the Kenema centre are actually treated for other illnesses first.

“They have a fever, they get so dried out and it is so hot here,” she said of the 40 C weather. “Every patient is treated for malaria, given an antibiotic for any bacterial illness they may have and they are given multi vitamins, or Tylenol and if they have specific issues like bleeding or diarrhea, we take care of that.”

Symptom management is the main course of treatment for those infected with Ebola. The idea is to get their body strong enough to fight the incurable illness. Health care professionals give patients lots of fluids and a highly nutritious substance that resembles peanut butter to keep their immune system as healthy as it can be.

Facebook messages, emails and international recognition for the patients’ struggle and the work done by care providers does just as much for helping those at the treatment centre maintain their positive attitude and resolve.

“Each morning when I go in, I talk to them about what I have received in the way of emails and Facebook messages over night from people around the world,” she said.  “You just tell them that everyone is pulling for them – not just Sierra Leone. It is so important for the Sierra Leonean nurses as well because they are there working for their own people and it is so important to them that their work is recognized, applauded and not forgotten.”

Time Magazine has even recently named those fighting Ebola as the People of the Year.

“The patients are the most heroic Ebola fighters of all, they are the ones fighting it for their very lives, but the idea that internationally, people are caring about them is so powerful,” said Gordon.

Gordon encourages anyone who wants to lend a hand to join up and fight the disease.

“It is hard, hot work, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else on the planet,” she said. “As far as personnel, there are new people coming in everyday. It is really funny how fast you go from being the new guy to the old hand. I do know that there is active recruiting going through the Red Cross for more help. They are recruiting health care providers and various levels of support people including psychosocial support, water sanitation people, infection control people and they are looking outside of the Red Cross now.”

Gordon would stay longer if she could, and would recommend the lifesaving mission to anyone with interest, especially since the Red Cross is denying requests for current care workers to stay longer than their assigned four weeks.

“I think this is an incredibly meaningful mission,” she said. “There are some very seasoned Red Crossians here that consistently say that this mission has been one that has touched them more than any they have been on before. Some people have requested extensions, but they aren’t granted because it really is intense work.”

To donate time or money to the Ebola cause, visit www.redcross.ca.

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