NHS Ebola volunteers will miss 'human touch'

By Megan Bramall
BBC News

Image source, Megan Bramall

Surrounded by Christmas lights and holiday makers, more than 30 NHS volunteers prepared to board a flight to Sierra Leone on Saturday to join the fight against Ebola.

After nine days of intensive Ministry of Defence training, the healthcare professionals are the first to be deployed by the UK government.

The team will spend five weeks in Sierra Leone working at Ebola treatment centres, returning three days after Christmas.

Before the flight, the atmosphere at terminal four was tense but positive.

Julie Flaherty, consultant nurse at Salford Royal Hospital

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Julie Flaherty said it would be an "extraordinary" experience not to be able to make physical contact with anyone for five weeks.

The consultant nurse said: "You would normally hold a patient's hand if they were in any pain. We won't have that.

"So many people are comforted just by touch and if you haven't got that touch it makes a big difference."

With a tear in her eye, she said she would also miss hugging her husband after a long day.

"That will be a challenge," she said.

Edward Vandi, clinical team leader from west London

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Edward Vandi, who moved to England from Sierra Leone 25 years ago and has sisters in the country, said he was "conscious of the risk" but looking forward to spending his first Christmas there since 1989.

He said: "I'll miss my family in the UK and I'm scared of seeing people dying. But being there and helping to reduce the risk will make me happy.

"Some of my relatives in Sierra Leone have been wiped out by Ebola so it gave me a desire to do something to help end this epidemic."

Cath Nixon, public health nurse from Oldham

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30-year-old Cath Nixon said she would also miss human contact. But she added her family knew she would volunteer to go.

She said: "Sometimes when you're having a difficult day then it's that what you need. A hug. And we won't have that.

"My family expected me to do it. They heard it on the news and knew it was the type of thing I would want to do.

"It's part of me, I believe in equality and healthcare for all."

Martin Deahl, consultant psychiatrist from Shropshire

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For Martin Deahl, Ebola was not his biggest worry as he prepared to board the flight.

As a consultant psychiatrist he will be responsible for both taking care of Ebola patients, and for helping other volunteers cope with the experience.

He said: "The hardest bit is when you have a family and one member is positive, and the others aren't, and you have to separate them. Especially when it's mothers and children.

"I think there will be a few group hugs before we leave the plane."

Dr Hannah Ryan, Aintree Hospital

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As 29-year-old Dr Ryan stood with her partner Dave Lewis, and father Andy Ryan, she said she was anxious but "raring to go".

"None of us have ever managed a patient with Ebola before and that's a big challenge," she said.

"We'll be doing something that's very new to us and doing it while wearing lots of protective equipment that makes it difficult to see, difficult to hear.

"You can't do examinations in the way that you would normally do and you can't interact with patients in the way you would normally interact with them."

Her partner said he was "massively worried" at first but felt better now.

Dr Ryan's father said: "One slip is a slip too many with potentially disastrous consequences so it is a worry. But her mum and I knew she'd put her hand up for it when the scheme was announced."

Dr Gordon Gancz, general practitioner and senior lecturer at the University of Oxford

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The oldest volunteer leaving for Sierra Leone, Dr Gancz said he only found out he was heading to West Africa a few weeks ago.

Dr Gancz - who declined to give his age - said training had eased any worries he had about safety. He also said the group of volunteers were very close.

"We've really bonded as a group", he said.

"We've all got little things hidden in our suitcases for Christmas and we've already started planning a pantomime for ourselves.

"On Christmas day we all plan to put on our full protective equipment to give each other a Christmas hug."

Image source, Megan Bramall

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