Where many are fleeing from, a few find it utterly impossible to stay away from. Sierra Leone was one of the countries mostly affected by the Ebola Virus Disease epidemic a few years back, precisely in 2014. It was an experience many of the survivors hope never to re-live again. Many residents fled their homes for fear of the disease.
Nurse Pauline Cafferkey, 42 years, a British National of Scottish descent, is a survivor of the disease. She got the disease after contracting it while on duty in Sierra Leone in 2014. She had only just returned to Britain in 2014, after volunteering to work in Sierra Leone for six-week, to discover she had contracted the disease. Pauline was diagnosed with the contagious disease days after returning home.
However, Pauline has returned to the country to see M’balu, an Eboola patient she was trying to save when she was affected.
She has been dubbed “The Ebola Angel” for her selfless efforts during the epidemic – which also spread into neighbouring Liberia and Guinea, killing 11,000 in total.
Back in 2014, M’balu could not tell who particularly came at any point in time to care for her. But for the names written boldly on the protective apparel of the nurses, the care-givers were simply persons in clothing.
M’balu could not see the woman under the protective suit, who gently bathed her burning skin and changed her soiled sheets as she lay close to death in an Ebola clinic. She could also not hear her voice.
All of a sudden, the lovely ‘Pauline’ stopped coming. She had to go back to Britain, where it was discovered she had the disease too.
Knowing only too well what could lie in store, Cafferkey propped her will on her dressing table and was quickly flown by the RAF in an isolation tent to the Royal Free Hospital in North London.
She endured three weeks of hell but survived, only to be struck down a second time nine months later, when the virus also triggered meningitis.
Back home, she recovered gradually but had fought disturbing side effects, including initially being unable to walk. Now, she has returned to Sierra Leone for the first time, in a bid to find “closure”.
In an emotional meeting, she was reunited with M’balu, who, with Pauline’s help, beat the virus.
Holding unto M’balu’s hand she said,
“I have never doubted what I did coming here, but meeting M’balu is the ultimate confirmation it was worthwhile,”
“What I have been through has taken an emotional toll,
“I have tried counselling, but it didn’t work for me. But coming back here has been therapeutic. It’s about being able to visit communities, meet survivors, see what they are achieving now.
“It has eased the pain of the past two years a little bit.
“It has been good to have a good cry. It’s not self-pity, but I can empathise a lot more with people here because I have been through it myself. I cried when I met M’balu because I felt for her, reliving what she had suffered. For a while I thought about what I had been through every hour of every day. It was all-consuming.”
In the throes of the disease, Pauline, M’balu and many other victims, suffered severe fever, diarrhoea and vomiting. Ebola can also cause the body to swell and the organs to fail.
Pauline describes the feeling of battling the illness as “nothingness”. She cared for hundreds of patients in the Kerry Town treatment centre, close to the capital Freetown, who experienced the same suffering.
M’balu has always remembered her, and has been desperate to thank her “Ebola angel” – a nickname modest Pauline feels embarrassed about.