5 November 2015
A doctor from North London has recently returned from Sierra Leone, after working for over seven months at a Red Cross treatment centre for Ebola patients.
35-year-old Sophie Reshamwalla, who lives in Winchmore Hill, was head doctor at a Red Cross Ebola Treatment Centre in Kono District in eastern Sierra Leone and returns from her third deployment to the country since Ebola hit West Africa.
Having first arrived in February when the epidemic was still in full swing, she says that the country is now a “different world.” The World Health Organisation is due to declare the end of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone on Saturday if no new cases of the virus are confirmed.
Much of the doctor’s final months in the country were spent providing psychosocial support to local health workers, who have borne the brunt of Sierra Leone’s fight against the virus.
“When I first went out, Ebola was still a very real presence in Sierra Leone. We had Ebola positive patients who needed to be cared for and it was still a very tense and dangerous place to be. Social gatherings were banned and people weren’t going to parties, or getting married.”
“But as time has gone on, restrictions have been lifted and the mood is much more upbeat. Schools have re-opened after one year of being closed so children are back in the education system and people are now freely able to shop in the local markets. For a while, Ebola completely changed the cultural landscape, but things are slowly returning to normal and the country is healing and mending.”
Although the number of Ebola patients across West Africa has dropped significantly in the last few months, Sophie found that many months of fighting the virus had taken a huge toll, particularly on local health workers.
“The Sierra Leonean staff that I worked with had been working at the treatment centre for coming up to a year, day after day.”
“We discovered that there was huge need for emotional support for these staff, who had not only been personally affected by Ebola, many having lost family or friends to the virus, but also professionally affected by working within a treatment centre. Witnessing so many deaths, particularly children, seeing children orphaned – that was a really difficult thing for all of the staff to have gone through.”
“One of my roles was therefore to provide a safe place for my local colleagues, by setting up counselling sessions, where people could share their worries and concerns and allow us to provide some psychological support for them.”
“I found that while my first deployments focused on the treatment of Ebola patients, when I returned in the summer, it was the health workers who were in real need of support. I’m really glad to have been able to help them – they are the real heroes of Sierra Leone’s fight against Ebola.”
While there is much to celebrate in Sierra Leone this week, the doctor says there is still a lot of work to be done to rebuild healthcare services in a country where even prior to the outbreak, life expectancy was amongst the lowest levels in the world.
“The sad thing about the Ebola epidemic is that it affected three countries that already had incredibly weak health systems. While the end of Ebola will be a huge occasion to celebrate, we need to be thinking already about what we can do to regenerate the health system. Things like vaccination campaigns, maternity care – they have all suffered.”
Sophie spent much of her final deployment providing clinical training for national staff, many of whom hope to go back to work in local hospitals. Now back at work in the UK, she hopes to train in public health later this year.
Notes to editors
For more information or interviews please contact Anna MacSwan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0207 877 7519
The Red Cross Red Crescent movement has been involved in all aspects of the Ebola response in Sierra Leone over the last 18 months, including running two Ebola Treatment Centres, conducting safe and dignified burials, community surveillance and education, contact tracing and providing psychosocial support
The Red Cross will continue to support the Ebola response and recovery in Sierra Leone through community surveillance and education and stands ready to scale up operations if needed