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York student returns from Ebola frontline

Posted on 4 February 2015

Health Sciences student Bill Clucas is back at his studies after five weeks working as a volunteer at the frontline of the Ebola crisis in one of the hardest hit areas of Sierra Leone.

Bill, a part-time student on the Masters in Public Health (MPH) programme, took time away from the University and his job as a paramedic with the Yorkshire Ambulance Service to work in an Ebola treatment centre in Port Loko. He was one of a group of other NHS volunteers to travel to Sierra Leone just before Christmas with aid agency GOAL.

Bill Clucas (centre) with other members of the international team working in Sierra Leone
During his stay, Bill cared for the critically ill patients, many of them women and children. And he trained over 100 local staff in safety protocols, including the use of protective equipment – all vital skills for staff treating the hundreds of patients who passed through the facility every week.

Bill said: “Ebola is an exceptionally cruel disease that affects women and children disproportionately. There were a lot of children without carers – and mothers who had lost their children. Sometimes all you can offer is comfort and support. It was amazing how human contact, even through a suit, is so important and often simple things like holding hands and hugging children can make an obvious difference.”

Training local staff was an important part of Bill’s role. “Many of the people I trained ended up going back out into the villages and towns, acting as advocates and educators, encouraging people to seek treatment, and teaching them what to do if they suspected someone had become infected. I felt we were passing their country’s destiny back into their own hands and that made it all worthwhile.”

Bill is used to dealing with serious emergencies in his job as a paramedic with the Hazardous Area Response Team (HART). But he said his studies at York also helped to prepare him for the trip. “It helped me understand the tension between balancing the demands of gold-standard clinical care and dealing with a public health emergency.

Local staff undergoing decontamination training
“In Sierra Leone this meant the difference between what we wanted to do and what we were actually capable of achieving in a challenging clinical setting where we could only spend 45 minutes at a time in our protective kit before we had to take an hour off to rehydrate.”

He admits that being away from home at Christmas was difficult. “We did have a little carol concert with all the staff and some of us sang carols for the patients. It was a little surreal though as at times we were dealing with exceptionally difficult situations including caring for people who were at the end stage of their illness.”

Bill signed up for the trip via the UK International Emergency Trauma Register. Now he is calling for other healthcare professionals to consider volunteering.

“It might be that going somewhere like Sierra Leone isn’t right for you, but do something. Giving back to the community helps with your clinical practice, it helps develop you as a person and it reminds you that helping someone in Africa is the same as helping someone down the street – we are all the same human beings at the end of the day.”