Nurse risked her life to help Ebola patients

Ms Wong Li Wai says the hardest part about her time in Sierra Leone was the helplessness she felt whenever a patient succumbed.
Ms Wong Li Wai says the hardest part about her time in Sierra Leone was the helplessness she felt whenever a patient succumbed.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

When news broke earlier this month that Sierra Leone had been officially declared Ebola-free, nurse Wong Li Wai was overjoyed.

During the height of the outbreak in West Africa late last year, the 38-year-old had left the safety of her home in Singapore to volunteer for five weeks in November and December at a Sierra Leone management centre for Ebola.

There, she put on a full protective suit twice a day and tended to the needs of infected patients.

She recalled that even though they were in the suits for only about an hour each time, the heat and weight of the suits took a toll.

"When the suit comes off you, you're soaked in sweat. It's like you've just come out of a swimming pool. You feel lethargic, so that for a long time after that you move slowly. You even talk slowly."

It was her third mission with international aid agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which she started volunteering with in 2012 after quitting her job as a nurse at the Institute of Mental Health.

Many would have baulked at the risk of infection, but Ms Wong downplayed her fears. "I didn't feel that concerned," she said, adding that the mandatory two-day safety training course she attended in Brussels before her mission had assuaged her fears.

The hardest part for her, she said, was the helplessness she felt whenever a patient succumbed. "You keep asking yourself, 'Why can't I do more?' " But that also meant every patient the centre saved was cause for celebration.

Ms Wong remembered in particular a 10-year-old boy who survived the critical period but remained sickly. "I was very worried about him, but I also felt he was showing me signs even as he was lying in bed - he would try to swallow, or turn on his own - signs that he wasn't going to give up. The day he was discharged, I thought - this is what a miracle looks like."

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which began in March last year, is the largest and most complex epidemic of the virus since it was discovered in 1976. The fatal disease, which causes internal and external bleeding before death, is spread through physical contact with patients and thus often contracted by the very people who care for the infected, such as family members or healthcare workers.

There have been nearly 30,000 cases and more than 11,000 deaths in the outbreak. As of this August, more than half of the nearly 900 medical staff who contracted Ebola in the affected West African countries have died.

Even after her five-week stint - the maximum period people were allowed to volunteer with MSF at the time - Ms Wong felt she had not done enough in Sierra Leone.

She returned in March and spent two months doing outreach work in villages, going from house to house to remind people how to protect themselves against the virus.

Although the prevailing image of Sierra Leone during the outbreak was a place ravaged by disease and poverty, she remembers it instead as a beautiful country of mountains, waterfalls and coasts, filled with "some of the kindest, strongest people I have ever known".

Many of the local staff she worked with had lost loved ones to Ebola, or were themselves survivors. Several had not told their families of their work because of the social discrimination against those in contact with the disease.

"I was moved by how brave and tough they were. They had been through so much, yet all they wanted was to keep fighting to make the disease go away," Ms Wong said.

Now taking a break from mission work, she is looking for a new job. She hopes to join the fight against infectious diseases such as HIV/Aids, which she feels is often overlooked in Singapore.

Her time in Sierra Leone has given her a new perspective on life back home. "Things people think are important - shopping for nice clothes or queueing for the new iPhone 6s - you realise these are material things. Once you see how vulnerable life can be, you tend to appreciate what you have more."

Olivia Ho

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'Nurse risked her life to help Ebola patients'. Print Edition | Subscribe