Katy Pitt is one of the few Bristol health workers to have tackled the West African Ebola epidemic firsthand. She shares her experiences with Alex Turner.
At teatime on a warm May Friday, Katy Pitt is chatting in a sun-streaked BS5 beer garden full of hippies and scaffolders tipping back their first ciders of the weekend.
The cheery environment seems at odds with the content of our conversation. Anyone eavesdropping might be disturbed to catch references to claustrophobic plastic suits and masks, not to mention descriptions of people “dying a fucking horrible death”.
Pitt isn’t, however, idly sharing horror stories but discussing her work life of just a few weeks earlier. Usually a senior staff nurse at the Bristol Royal Infirmary’s gynaecology department, she’s one of a tiny handful of NHS workers from the city who travelled to Sierra Leone to fight the Ebola crisis gripping the country and its neighbours.
While the disease’s name has faded from the front pages and talk of sealing UK borders has died down, the outbreak is far from over in either Sierra Leone or neighbouring Guinea. What was it like to encounter it firsthand in early spring – and what motivated Pitt to go to West Africa in the first place?
Katy embraces a colleague after a difficult shift on the ward.
‘My passion for nursing and what I did in Sierra Leone are part of the same thing,’ Pitt begins. ‘I believe every human has the right to healthcare – when [something like Ebola] kicks off it’s a reminder there are so many countries that don’t have that.’ She tails off. ‘This is such a cheesy answer,’ she laughs, crinkling her eyes and lighting the first in a series of rollups.
Answering the call
After responding to a November 2014 callout for health professionals to join an Ebola treatment centre, Pitt spent two months embroiled in a rigorous selection procedure. A phone interview was followed by information evenings, a medical and a tense process of being shuffled on and off different potential teams as available staff were matched to areas of demand.
‘I was nervous, but I didn’t think I was risking my life,’ Pitt says. ‘I felt privileged to be on the list – selfishly, to be able to fulfil a dream and, more selflessly, to have the chance to go out and help people who bloody needed it.’
‘The waiting was hard though,’ she admits.
A moment of elation followed when the call finally came at the end of January. But the first reality check arrived during five days’ intensive training in the UK before flying out. For staff used to NHS hospitals, the confines of a protective suit came as a shock.
Preparing to enter the Ebola ward.
‘You’ve got scrubs on, then the suit,’ Pitt explains. ‘Under that you have gloves to your elbows, a mouth mask, two more pairs of gloves, wellies, what looks like a white Darth Vader mask, plus a hat with eye holes – and you’re tied into everything.
‘There’s a heavy plastic apron, and goggles pulled so tight it’s like having a constant ice cream headache – it’s hideous,’ she adds. Of course, the getup becomes infinitely more taxing when combined with 40-degree heat.
On the ground
Arriving at the Kerry Town Ebola treatment centre, 30km from Sierra Leone capital Freetown, Pitt and her colleagues knew new cases had been declining – so it was unclear whether they’d see any action. Then came a sudden spike, with the centre busier than it had been for two months. ‘That’s when we all shit ourselves,’ recalls Pitt with a rueful grin.
Kerry Town, though better-equipped than hospitals in Sierra Leone, was predictably a far cry from European facilities. Army-style tents formed the wards, with 10 beds to each one. The environment within the protective suits was so intense, Pitt says, that staff would lose up to three litres of sweat during the 90 minutes they could safely spend attending to patients’ needs before taking a break.
Katy and another nurse in decontamination
That meant getting in, cleaning up two or three patients, giving them antibiotics, pain relief and fluids to make them as comfortable as possible, and getting out again. Fainting while on duty would mean coming into contact with contaminated items – and putting colleagues, who’d have to carry you out, at risk.
Most of those colleagues were locals – 10 in each team, with two or three international staff. ‘These guys have been there since day one,’ says Pitt. ‘This is their country, their people, and they’re working tirelessly with no wane in commitment and dedication. Lots of them are shunned by loved ones – Ebola is a massive stigma. They’re the most phenomenal people I’ve worked with.’
An international effort
Pitt also reserves special praise for the Cuban medical teams she encountered, some of whom had been in Sierra Leone up to six months. After the UK, the Caribbean nation sent most doctors out to fight Ebola, with the Cuban Medical Brigade subsequently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their work to tackle the disease. The camaraderie between different groups of staff, says Pitt, is one of her most treasured memories from her time in Kerry Town.
Pitt’s recollections of treating patients are understandably more bittersweet. Despite the alienating suits and a language barrier (Creow pidgin-English is spoken in Sierra Leone), Pitt says she was able to build rapport with and comfort many of the people she was treating. Of course, though, neither she nor anyone else was able to prevent large numbers of them succumbing to Ebola.
Even so, there were bright spots. ‘We discharged one of our youngest survivors – a nine-month old girl,’ Pitt smiles. ‘Normally if you’re under five you’ll probably die, but both she and her mother had Ebola, and survived. Everyone sang a song, there was music – it was wonderful.’
Returning NHS staff were given crisis kits at the airport.
Leaving Kerry Town after five weeks was, says Pitt, almost harder than being there. An inevitable sense of guilt at leaving behind a job unfinished was followed by a kidney infection that began with Ebola-like symptoms. While in West Africa, staff were too busy to dwell on their own health – and precautions were, after all, in place. Three weeks of quarantine back at home, monitored by Public Health England, presented an altogether different brand of stress.
Nonetheless, says Pitt, the experience has only hardened her own resolve to look for similar opportunities in future. ‘We just don’t know how lucky we are – not a bloody clue,” she concludes. “I felt humbled and will always do so by the strength and determination of an entire country.’
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