Yesterday was New Year’s Eve. As the clock ticked over to midnight in Melbourne it was early afternoon in the Ebola Treatment Centre and I was waiting to go into the Red-Zone to see some patients who had arrived earlier. The day was already proving trying. My first foray into PPE had to be cut short when my goggles felt unsecure, and I called time on my entry after barely 5 minutes. There was no harm and no breaches and everybody agreed with my decision, but I was disappointed all the same.
As I sat writing up medication charts for new admissions, I flicked over a page in the notes and felt the familiar but unanticipated sting of a papercut on my right thumb. There it was, a 5 millimetre sliver of raw skin shining up at me.
Anyone who knows me will know what I said, but I’m not going to type it cos my nephew might read.
I was grounded. My job for the day was ensuring the (copious) paperwork from the (numerous) admissions we had was completed. It kept me busy, but it wasn’t what I’d wanted to do with my afternoon.
Driving home I looked out on a poor overcrowded city with slum housing and unsafe roads and wondered to myself what I was doing here. Can such a place be ridden of a disease spread by direct contact? Is working where a papercut must be taken so seriously worth the risk to me and my family? Is this all just a few weeks of dangerous self-indulgence?
Fortunately, I am working with a fantastic group of people and a couple of conversations later I was ready to face the evening and the next day. Despite the date, no-one in the group made it to midnight.
Today, however, was another day. The ward was full when I arrived at dawn, and, papercut healed, a busy ward-round beckoned. With only an hour possible in PPE, we knew that we might not be able to see everyone. However, frankly, the nurse, hygienist and I had a blinder. We moved through the ward like a well oiled machine, getting information from each person in turn, washing our hands in the ever-present chlorine then moving to the next person. An hour later we emerged triumphant with all patients seen. Our PPE had behaved itself, we had worked perfectly together, and we even got to break some good news.
So today things are brighter. There is no doubt that the Ebola situation in West Africa is desperate. But there is a huge resolve to sort it out. Everywhere, you see people who represent a small part of the Ebola elimination team. There are CDC people, WHO, Ministry of Health. There are roadblocks for temperature taking and hand washing, and there are posters, loud-haler-clad pick up trucks, and contact tracing teams. It is a huge team and it is going to get the job done.
And there is the team I’m in. A team in which people talk when they need to and allow space where space is needed; full of people who manage to care through 3 layers of body-covering clothing with sweat dripping into their goggles and building up in their boots. A team brought together with no previous knowledge of each other and from different backgrounds and situations, who are not only treating people with Ebola with compassion, respect and immense competence; not only setting up then managing a hospital, but also helping each other, chatting, insisting on respecting papercuts, and seeing in new years.
Happy New Year.