Where kindness can kill

by
22 May 2015

Simon Farmer, an army chaplain, recounts life in a field hospital in Sierra Leone during the recent Ebola outbreak

The team supports a victim

The team supports a victim

RETURNING from the orphanage, I was left trying to take in all the images of the many children who had so very little. Some just had a toothbrush and a small, dirty, worn-out teddy.

I found two children, about 18 months old, who had lost their parents to the Ebola virus two weeks earlier. One was actually found in the gutter of a road. Nearly all the children were Ebola survivors, or orphans of parents who had died from the disease. I thought, along with the soldiers who had accompanied me, "Where is God in all this mess?"

The Ebola virus has ripped through the land, a bit like an Old Testament plague. Historically, this beautiful country has seen so much horror before, losing many of its people to slavery just over 200 years ago, to the recent bloody civil war, to the struggle against HIV and malaria, and now to Ebola.

Despite this, the churches remain full, and the mosques are packed, with everyone praying desperately for an end to this vicious, deadly virus. As the Deputy Chief Imam of the Republic of the Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) ran up to me to welcome me on my return to this country, I realised that this is the only place where I have found a real sense of togetherness across the mainstream faiths.

The no-touch policy meant that we could only slap our chests instead as a greeting. With a 70-per-cent Muslim population, you would never believe that the Chief Christian Chaplain would be able to lead an RSLAF battalion, just back from recent operations in Somalia, in saying the Lord's Prayer, but he did - and everyone joined in.

Churches across the country and around the world have prayed that God would deliver Sierra Leone and West Africa from this disease. The 400-strong church next to our army camp, where 200 children attend Sunday school, is no different, and they pray desperately for an end to Ebola.

Within days of landing on African soil, where it was dry season and there'd been no rain for two months, I saw the black stormclouds gather, and suddenly the land was unusually soaked with rain. It felt like a small miracle, as if God was saying that the country was being washed and cleansed. From that day, incredibly, the numbers of new Ebola cases started to drop significantly.

 

BACK at camp, the duty phone rang. "Padre, it's the CO. We have another death at the KTTU (Kerry Town Treatment Unit). How quickly can you get here?"

Within 20 minutes, I was back at KTTU making my way across the Ebola Virus Treatment facility in the intense heat, with my "buddy", the Sergeant Major, and heading towards the changing area. Grabbing a bottle of icy cold water from the fridge to hydrate myself, I was soon changed into my extra-long scrubs and white wellies.

Having checked my temperature, and hands for any scratches, my hydration, and been to the loo, I was good to go.

We made our way to the donning area to put on the Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), at the entrance to the red "danger" zone of the unit. En route, from the green to the yellow zone, we had to wash our hands yet again in chlorine. Your hands permanently smell of chlorine.

Then, unexpectedly, we walked into the family of an Ebola patient who had just died. They had come for their daily visit, and were thrown into a state of shock and grief, not expecting to see, before their own eyes, their loved one die.

I shared brief words of condolence, and said a short prayer, as we were keen to get the body to the mortuary in the heat of the day. The family had made a long journey, taking three taxis from Freetown, but at least the father just got to see and speak to his young son before he died. The heartbroken sister tried to control her tears, but the grief was too intense.

The young man seemed OK the day before, when I had chatted to him and his sister. We had prayed, and she sang a hymn. But today it could not have been more different. The man had suddenly deteriorated during the night.

 

AS I DUG deeper into their story, it was yet another set of sad circumstances. As someone said, the superhighway to the spread of Ebola has been compassion and kindness. So often someone had rushed to help a family member, or agreed to babysit for a child who had Ebola, or had been to a funeral, and, in so doing, contracted Ebola.

The family graciously thanked the courageous doctors and nurses who had worked tirelessly in extreme conditions. "It must be God's will," said one of the brothers, holding his large preacher's Bible. I was less convinced, as I found myself complaining to God that this was the outcome.

It was a tragic end, but there was something special about this particular family. They certainly had a deep faith, and all genuinely trusted in Jesus Christ. They clearly had hope that he had gone to heaven. They knew he would have a better life with Jesus for eternity, and looked for the day when they would meet again. "We must give God the glory," another family member said, and they all said "Amen".

The family, clutching nothing but a photograph and memories, drifted off. The world had just collapsed around them, but they walked in faith talking and praying aloud to Jesus as they went. I was able to put the taxi fare into the sister's hand to get them home, thanks to all those back home who had donated money for such things.


PULLING myself together, I joined the "Care of the Dead" team to get ready to enter the red zone. It normally took about 15 minutes. Today it was at the hottest part of the day, and it was sweltering. Sweat was pouring off us, and my scrubs were damp even before we had put on the protective gear.

I found my PPE suit, the visor, the mouth mask, the apron, the two pairs of gloves, and the hair net. In buddy pairs we slowly and carefully donned the gear, all done to specific drills. The temperature rose rapidly and my breathing rate soon increased. It felt more claustrophobic than usual - it was the heat.

The CSM completed a final check, and in the same way I checked him, to see that all the kit was fitted correctly. Finally, using a black marker we wrote the time of entry on to our aprons, and the CSM wrote Padre on my apron. He liked to draw a cross, too.

I was hoping he might have written "Simon", to give me some sense of personality, but I was going to face only a dead body rather than a patient; so it didn't matter. The PPE completely takes away our humanness, and almost manages to transform us into robots.


WE TOOK down the plastic chain, and entered the red zone. The heat was penetrating. Black body-bag in hand, we walked through to where the deceased lay on the bed. To see him, now dead, was a shock to us all, given that we had been talking with him only a few hours earlier. His face was left visible between the sheets.

The two medics and the CSM respectfully bowed their heads before the young man, as if on military parade. It was the cue for me to lead prayers. We all knew the drills. Almost at a whisper, knowing there were patients in the next tent also with Ebola, I asked God to graciously receive this young man into his Kingdom, to be at rest for eternity.

All Sierra Leoneans have their own understanding of the spiritual world, and, in addition, many believe in ghosts and spirits. And there lies a serious concern for the spread of Ebola, as the washing of the dead bodies and secret burials continue in some places, and often it is at huge cost to the families.

Prayers finished, the drills for moving the dead patient took over, including spraying everything with 0.5-per-cent chlorine. The period around the time of death is one of the most dangerous for the virus, as it then sheds itself. Sierra Leone has become a rollercoaster of emotions for all the army personnel and everyone who has volunteered to work in this country. Today was no exception.


THE following day, the family returned, and a local burial team arrived, headed by the Red Cross. I stood with the family in the clean area, feeling as if we were on a science-fiction film-set. Men in PPE suits transferred the body in a double body-bag from the unit into the burial team's vehicle. I shared a further prayer, as we all respectfully bowed our heads for the second time.

The father proudly showed me a photograph of his younger boy, before turning away to try and hide his grief. As they left, the family were given a hygiene kit to allow the family to clean their home, and a few other bits of support and advice. We would probably never see them again.


THANK God that the world woke up to this virus, and the international community, along with the British armed forces, has helped tackle Ebola. To see so many volunteers helping the people of West Africa has been comforting.

God is in the mess. He always has been, and always will be. Why would anyone doubt that? Without God there is no hope, there is no future -and the African people know it.

Even those who have lost a loved one in such a horrific way are seen to hang on to their faith and love of God, who remains above all things and leads us from this world to the next, whenever that might be.

I pray that God will heal Sierra Leone and West Africa of this virus, and that the world helps these countries to put in place a health-care system that is robust enough to prevent further pandemic outbreaks in years to come.

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