Singapore nurse joined fight against Ebola

She was at the front lines, seeing to patients' needs in Sierra Leone

Ms Wong Li Wai volunteered with Doctors Without Borders and spent five weeks in November and December last year - during the height of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa - at an Ebola management centre in Sierra Leone tending to patients' needs. She r
Ms Wong Li Wai volunteered with Doctors Without Borders and spent five weeks in November and December last year - during the height of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa - at an Ebola management centre in Sierra Leone tending to patients' needs. She returned to Sierra Leone in March this year to do outreach work, helping to spread Ebola prevention awareness. ST PHOTO: STEPHANIE YEOW

MOST people may have forgotten about the Ebola epidemic, but at least one Singaporean has been stepping up since last year to help its victims.

During the height of the outbreak in West Africa late last year, nurse Wong Li Wai spent five weeks in November and December in an Ebola management centre in Sierra Leone tending to the patients' needs.

While people across the world were afraid of contracting the virus, she put on a full suit of personal protection equipment twice a day and went into a tent full of Ebola patients, to clean and feed them and give them medicine.

Even after that stint, which was the maximum period people could volunteer at the time with aid agency Doctors Without Borders, she felt her job was not done.

In March this year, the 38-year-old went back to Sierra Leone with the group and spent two months visiting villages to make sure the people knew how to prevent themselves from getting the disease.

A former nurse at the Institute of Mental Health, Ms Wong told The Straits Times that when she returned to Singapore earlier this month, she quit her job as she wanted to do more.

She had not worked with an aid group before, but learnt of Doctors Without Borders' work, and signed up for her first mission in 2012, in Zambia, to work with the local Health Ministry to manage drugs for HIV-positive pregnant women.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which started in March last year, is the largest and most complex epidemic of the virus since it was discovered in 1976.

There have been nearly 30,000 suspected and confirmed cases and more than 11,000 deaths so far in the current outbreak.

Ms Wong said she was not afraid when she went to Sierra Leone last year. She had undergone a mandatory two-day safety training course in Brussels before her stint.

"The safety measures are very clear so you know how not to get the virus. I didn't feel I was doing anything risky," she said.

Still, her sister Cathy, 39, a management support officer at Republic Polytechnic, was initially concerned: "I asked her to think about the decision carefully, even though I would support whatever decision she made. Of course, I was also proud that she wanted to take on this mission."

Their parents work as part-time cleaners and Ms Wong is single.

At the time, the Ebola management centre was handling about 60 patients, and the staff were divided into shifts to manage them.

To prevent themselves from being infected, the staff had to come up with creative ways to track the patients' condition.

The tents where the patients were kept were surrounded by barriers, and items like paper brought within the barriers could not be brought out, and had to be burned, just in case they had been contaminated.

To track the patients' temperatures, the staff wrote the numbers on a piece of paper, left the tent and shouted the figures to another staff member standing on the outside of the barrier.

"Sometimes it can be quite frustrating when they cannot hear you, because the suit muffles you. Your movement is also restricted, and you can find it difficult to breathe, so it becomes exhausting," Ms Wong said.

After she finished her work, she also had to be careful when taking off the protective suit.

"By the time you de-gown you are very tired, but you cannot touch the outside of the suit when you remove each piece of gear because it is probably contaminated already," she said.

Ms Wong said the highs of her stint were when patients who seemed doomed got well: "When you see your patient survive and walk out of the place, those are your proudest moments. All of the staff will dance and cheer."

When she returned to Sierra Leone in March for her second stint, she wanted to try something different. "By then, the Ebola management centre also had only one case, so I felt outreach was the most important task."

For two months, she and a few other staff went house to house in villages to remind people how to protect themselves against the virus. This included not eating bushmeat, which is meat from wild animals such as bats and monkeys, because it could be infected with the virus, and not burying the dead themselves.

While Ms Wong was in Sierra Leone, others have also been helping in the fight against the virus. Professor Peter Horby from Britain's University of Oxford has been leading a drug trial in Sierra Leone to target an Ebola strain responsible for the infections in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Results are expected by the year end.

He was previously head of the Singapore Infectious Diseases Initiative, set up in 2012 and funded by the Ministry of Health to spur collaborative research in infectious diseases, including preparation for Ebola and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers). It is now led by Adjunct Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang from the National University Health System.

Ms Wong said she plans to take a break now, and then see if she can go on another mission with Doctors Without Borders in September. She also has no regrets about her Ebola stints.

"When I came back, I was happy that I did what I did. Although it was a simple job, they needed us and we did our best. As a nurse, I felt it was my calling. "

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