NZ Nurses reveal grim realities of caring for Ebola patients in Sierra Leone

From Nine To Noon, 9:15 am on 10 October 2014
New Zealand Red Cross nurse Donna Collins in Sierra Leone wearing full personal protection equipment.

New Zealand Red Cross nurse Donna Collins in Sierra Leone wearing full personal protection equipment. Photo: supplied

When New Zealand nurse Donna Collins first put on her full protective gear on to work with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, she feared she would look like a Martian and frighten people already terrified by the disease.

She and fellow nurse Sharon Mackie had to be trained to not only put the personal protection equipment on, but how to carefully remove it as well.

Listen to Donna Collins and Sharon Mackie talking about their experiences on Nine to Noon on Radio New Zealand National.

Not a single piece of skin is exposed. You wear scrubs underneath yellow overalls, a plastic apron, face mask, hood protection, goggles, two pairs of gloves and gumboots which are wet from soaking in chlorine.

 - Sharon Mackie

They spent several weeks working in various medical centres in Sierra Leone treating Ebola patients. At a tent triage centre outside one hospital, they had to assess patients over a fence at a distance of 1.5 metres to prevent contamination. At the Ebola treatment centre, where they worked directly with patients, they had to wear their full protective gear which meant only being able to spend 45 minutes at a time with patients due to the intense heat.

Personal protection equipment is like doing your job wearing your own personal sauna.

- Sharon Mackie

Red Cross nurse Sharon Mackie in Sierra Leone.

New Zealand Red Cross nurse Sharon Mackie at a Red Cross temporary Ebola treatment hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone. Photo: Supplied

The conditions were gruelling - 50 degrees Celsius heat, flies everywhere and witnessing what they describe as horrible deaths - including children and pregnant women.

But they say there were also some remarkable survival stories - and there is no rhyme nor reason as to who will survive the disease.  

The nurses spent 21 days in quarantine before coming back to New Zealand.

Ministry of Health Statement: The incubation period for Ebola is most commonly 8-10 days, but can be as little as two. The longest incubation period reported is 21 days. It is important to note that a person with Ebola is not infectious until they have developed symptoms. The Ministry has developed a protocol for people returning to New Zealand after assisting with the international Ebola response. This includes a 21-day self-monitoring period, starting from the date of departure from the Ebola-affected country. The two Red Cross nurses who recently returned from supporting the international Ebola response in Sierra Leone have been well and are now past the 21-day monitoring period. The Ministry recognises the valuable contribution of people such as these who offer their practical skills and expertise in this global response. It would be unfortunate if they were subject to stigmatisation on their return home.