Lessons I Learned Working in the Ebola Outbreak – Guest Post

Lessons I Learned Working in the Ebola Outbreak – Guest Post

ebola outbreak
Fighting stigma was a huge issue during the ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone

Emily Scott shares from her experience as a nurse on medical mission to Sierra Leone during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. For background on the epidemic, check out “Ebola: Mapping the Outbreak” 

A deadly epidemic should be a reminder that we are all human. That no matter our nationality or the color of our skin, everyone is mortal and our health depends on the health of others.

Instead, the unprecedented Ebola outbreak in West Africa exposed the fact that our world still values some lives over others. While thousands of Africans died, most people in the Western world didn’t even notice; but when the disease touched American soil with a single patient, all hell broke loose. As an American Registered Nurse working in Ebola units at the time, I witnessed firsthand how this refusal to recognize each others’ humanity is dangerous to us all.

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Let me start at the beginning,

By summer 2014, the epidemic had reached the capital cities of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – making it different from the previous small, isolated Ebola outbreaks in other parts of the continent. I remember hearing a news story about it on NPR while driving through my neighborhood in Seattle. My ears immediately perked up.

Having spent significant time volunteering in Africa, I knew the conditions were right for this particular Ebola outbreak to spread like wildfire. The disease is contagious through contact with infectious bodily fluids, so densely populated cities with insufficient health infrastructure and limited access to running water were a recipe for disaster.

Which is exactly why most people in America didn’t care. West Africa was “different”. The outbreak was “over there”. The disease affected “them”, not “us”.

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It could never happen here. Until it did.

ebola outbreak Sierra Leone
Training in a mock Ebola Unit in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Ebola Outbreak in America…

In September 2014, a Liberian man walked into a hospital in Texas and became the first patient to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. Before long, the nurses who cared for him became the second and third.

Cue hysteria. I was flying home from a medical mission in Belize on the day that the second nurse was diagnosed, and I vividly recall watching frenzied live coverage of her ambulance on every screen in the Atlanta airport. I listened to people blaming the patient before they knew the facts. I watched my fellow passengers frantically wipe down the surfaces of their tray tables and eye each other with suspicion.

I shook my head at pundits on the news ranting about sealing our borders. Few had cared about the Ebola outbreak as long as it was happening to those people; but when it came for us, suddenly everyone sat up and took notice. An acquaintance even suggested we seal off West Africa and just blow it up (seriously).

Why Would Anyone Willingly Volunteer for a Medical Mission During an Ebola Outbreak!?

If you ask me, when your neighbor’s house is on fire, you lend them your hose. So, in the midst of the furor, I signed up to deploy to Sierra Leone with the non-profit Partners In Health to help stem the epidemic.

When I hit the ground in West Africa myself, I saw a story that few news outlets were telling: Incredibly brave, smart, selfless Sierra Leonean nurses risking their lives every day to save their country. I attended training in the capital, Freetown, with a young local nurse who had volunteered to treat Ebola patients against her family’s wishes because she wanted to do her part. She was posted in a unit far from home, so she was only able to see her husband and child on her rare days off. But she told me she loved her work.

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ebola outbreak Sierra Leone
A few of the awesome Sierra Leonean nurses with whom I completed training

The Privilege of Being a Foreign Volunteer:

Now that I could count these amazing Sierra Leonean nurses as my friends, I couldn’t ignore my privilege as a foreign volunteer. Had I contracted Ebola, I would have been evacuated to America immediately to receive the best medical care in the world. Local clinicians, however, would remain in West Africa to fight for their lives and survive mostly based on luck.

We all suited up together in 90-degree heat every day, treated patients together in deplorable conditions, celebrated and mourned together depending on how our patients fared. But in reality, the risk local nurses were taking was so much greater than mine. In West Africa, the mortality rate was about 50%. But guess how many Western aid workers died of Ebola when they were treated in their home countries? Zero.

ebola outbreak sign
Countries lacking certain infrastructures are at higher risk for disease outbreaks

The Containment of the Ebola Outbreak:

In the end, we owe the containment of the Ebola outbreak in huge part to the bravery and sacrifice of so many committed West African clinicians. Regardless of the miles or borders between us, our safety is inextricably linked in a world where people can hop on a plane and be anywhere in a matter of hours.

Not everyone can deploy to a humanitarian disaster, but as travelers each of us can help change the narrative. We know what it’s like to connect with someone on the opposite side of the world; we have stories that make foreigners seem like neighbors; we know from personal experience that there is no “us” and “them”.

Despite the challenges I faced and tragedies I witnessed working in Sierra Leone, I’ll always be thankful for the lessons I learned there. Whether it’s Ebola or something else, there will be another outbreak on this little planet that we share. I just hope next time we remember that we’re all in this together.

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Emily blogs about ethical travel and off the beaten path adventures at Two Dusty Travelers. You can find all her posts written during her time in Sierra Leone here. And if you’re interested in going on a medical mission, read this first. You can follow along on Instagram and Facebook