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Former Whittington Hospital doctor describes first shift in Ebola-struck Sierra Leone

Former Whittington doctor Benjamin Black Former Whittington doctor Benjamin Black

Tuesday, August 12, 2014
1:00 PM

Benjamin Black is a UK obstetrician who swapped his job at the Whittington Hospital to work for medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Sierra Leone.

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Benjamin BlackBenjamin Black

The west African country is in the grip of an Ebola outbreak. He describes his first 24-hour shift:

The largest recorded epidemic of Ebola is under way, and the direction of spread has put our clinic directly on course for collision.

Ebola remains a very feared disease, with good reason. The disease is contagious, difficult to initially diagnose and deadly to most of those infected. Ebola is not a disease I had ever really given much thought to, firstly because until this outbreak it had been restricted to pockets in remote areas and usually burned itself out, and secondly because as an obstetrician I had not expected it to be too much my concern. I was wrong.

The day itself started pretty routinely; after my ward rounds I waited for my patients to arrive.

The first was a 40-year-old woman who was 16 weeks pregnant and had been bleeding heavily for three days.

She was barely conscious and moaning in a language that the nurses could not understand. Her heart was racing, her blood pressure was through the floor, and she had a burning temperature.

We are on alert for Ebola, so take any patients with bleeding and fever very seriously. Once I had donned all the protective gear I approached her, peering through my goggles. She was clearly miscarrying. We began giving her treatment – luckily there is blood in the bank.

Later in the afternoon, I get a call, more patients have arrived.

One is from the same town as the woman I admitted earlier with bleeding and fever.

The more questions we asked, the more suspicious it sounded.

The woman from earlier was resuscitated now and able to speak good English. She had also attended funerals and prepared the bodies – something that is very risky.

She reported seeing many people die in her village but couldn’t say from what. And so my first shift also brought the first two suspected Ebola cases.

We open up the isolation unit and put the space suits on.

The heat inside is incredible, within minutes I could feel sweat dribbling down all my limbs.

I expected one of us to faint at any point. We carry our patient into the isolation unit and get her comfortable.

Before leaving we are sprayed with chlorine and then we finally take off our protective gear.

I could not believe this was my first shift.

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