Interview: Nathalie MacDermott, doctor

18 April 2017

‘The hardest thing was watching nearly all my patients die’

Samaritan’s Purse

I currently work as a paediatrician at Imperial College, London. Before the Ebola epidemic, I was undertaking my paediatric training in south-east Wales. I’ve now taken time out of training to do a Ph.D. at Imperial College, looking at genetic susceptibility to outcome from Ebola virus infection in Sierra Leone.

 

Liberia and Sierra Leone are not violent cultures as such, but, when people have been through a recent civil war, it changes the way they see things. A lot of people in Liberia were taken from their parents and forced to commit atrocious acts, whether by the military or guerrilla groups.

 

There is a huge distrust of the government in Liberia and Sierra Leone; so communities distrust health advice, and many didn’t believe Ebola existed. People thought we were stealing people’s organs in the clinics because, before elections, this could happen as a way of intimidating the opposition, or because of traditional witchcraft beliefs.

 

I wanted to study medicine since I was 14, because I was fascinated by how the human body worked. But, mostly, I wanted to work in humanitarian aid, and I felt that the best and most sustainable way to do that was through working as a doctor. I’ve been blessed with so much, and I find it hard to see people in great need and not help.

 

Since I became a Christian, my compassion for those in need has only grown. I’ve been part of Samaritan’s Purse, which is a Christian NGO that works in disaster relief and humanitarian aid. I’ve worked with them as a medical volunteer in their Disaster Assistance Response Team since 2011.

 

I’ve been interested in Ebola for a long time, since I was 14. Clinically, it’s quite a fascinating disease. But I went to Liberia because I couldn’t watch the suffering that was unfolding there and do nothing to help. I felt it was where God wanted me to be, and he opened the door for me to go.

 

I hoped that in some way, along with other colleagues, I might be able to help prevent what we knew was unfolding. As it turned out, what followed helped to shine a light on the situation in West Africa, and eventually the international community became involved at a much greater level.

 

I travelled to Monrovia in July 2014, and went to work at the ELWA [Eternal Love Winning Africa] Ebola treatment centre. The programme was funded by Samaritan’s Purse in the first instance, through private donations, and then through USAID.

 

In July 2014, the atmosphere was tense. Fear hung over Monrovia like a cloud, and there were regular riots on the street outside our compound, in opposition to the construction of a bigger Ebola treatment centre that we were trying to build near by.

 

The situation there is difficult to describe. My colleagues and I worked long hours at the Ebola treatment centre, where I was clinical team leader once my colleague, Kent Brantly, became unwell. Each day brought many unpleasant surprises and situations I’d never dealt with before. It was extremely stressful, but we were so busy we just had to keep on going, in the hope that some of our patients might survive. While we didn’t have much time to stop and pray, even through the chaos God broke through, and we knew he was with us.

 

I returned home, but went back in October 2014, and worked till March 2016 in several different countries, setting up small rural treatment facilities and operating a mobile rapid-response to cluster outbreaks in rural areas.

 

I believe God values every single life. We may not — especially if we don’t have an emotional connection with them. I think God was grieving with us in that epidemic; but he also gave us the opportunity to make decisions, good and bad. I believe God intervened many times in that situation, in ways I don’t even recognise now.

 

During a security training day at West Point Academy some years back, I’d made a private decision on how I would act in an emergency: I’d put others’ lives first. We practise emergency scenarios regularly in medicine; so when the time comes, and there’s chaos, we have a formula to fall back on. In the same way, having made an emotional decision at a time when it was just a scenario, I could fall back on my decision about who I wanted to be.

 

Also, Heidi Baker’s formula about “stopping for the one” helps me. We didn’t dwell on the thousands of people we weren’t treating, for whatever reason, but tried to do our best for the patient we were caring for at the time.

 

The hardest thing was watching nearly all my patients die, as the epidemic spiralled out of control while the international community continued to ignore the situation. I also had to watch two of my colleagues, who were also my friends, contract Ebola and both nearly die. To me, one of the cruellest things about Ebola is that you might die surrounded by people completely encased in protective suits, and with no opportunity to touch or say goodbye to the people you love. I wanted to do whatever I could to lessen the pain and distress.

 

The greatest thing for me was that my two colleagues survived, and were able to direct the world’s attention to the rapidly escalating crisis. Finally, we had an international response, and, eventually, we were able to bring the epidemic to an end.

 

I’m not afraid of dying. As Paul says in Philippians: “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” For me, living according to the call of Christ on my life is the most important thing. If that places me in harm’s way, then my God is more than able to deliver me from that situation. If he chooses not to, then I get to go and be with him in the most amazing place. It is a win-win situation.

 

I think the media on the whole were respectful and empathetic to Pauline Cafferkey; but there’ll always be some who like to play on fear, and condemn people for their actions. Pauline, like many others, chose to help those in desperate need while placing herself in harm’s way, and was unfortunate to be infected. She should be respected for her decision, not hauled in front of the Nursing and Midwifery Council to question her professional conduct. We need more people like her.

 

What makes me angry is the injustice of how people who are in great need can be treated by the world’s politicians.

 

Writing the book [Dare to Trust, published last month] was difficult, particularly writing about the Ebola epidemic; but it was cathartic, too. I wrote it as an encouragement for others that God can and will use anybody who is willing.

 

I was born in Oxford, but when I was five we moved to Switzerland with my father’s job, and I attended an international school. My parents separated when I was ten years old, but both they and my brother still live in Switzerland.

 

I was raised a Roman Catholic, and, while I believed in God, I wouldn’t say I had any kind of relationship with him. At university, I became friends with some Christians, and in my second and third year I started attending an Alpha course. I got saved during the course, and was baptised in water and filled with the Holy Spirit. My parents, my church leaders, and my closest friends have been the greatest influences on my life.

 

The sound of the ocean is my favourite sound.

 

I think my mother understands me. She knows that holding me back wouldn’t enable me to be the person I am; so she allows me to go on doing my work. I’m not a great risk-taker — I don’t take massive financial risks or anything like that. A lot of places where there’s great need do present risks, but people live in those environments day in, day out.

 

The Bible is the book I turn to for inspiration and comfort.

 

I’m happiest when I’m surrounded by the people I love.

 

I pray most for wisdom and grace for how to respond to the situations I find myself in.

 

Jesus is my hope for the future. If I could choose one companion to be locked in a church with for a few hours, it would be him.

 

 

Nathalie MacDermott was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Dare to Trust: Choosing a life of risk was published last month by Monarch/Lion Hudson (£8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10)).

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