Nurse Natalie Mounter is at pains to point out that she's not a hero. The 36-year-old doesn’t see her time in Sierra Leone working in the thick of the deadly ebola epidemic as anything more than just doing her job.
Though other people might find her decision to up sticks and leave her comfortable life for the heat, chaos and danger of a west African nation in the grip of one of the most deadly diseases that exists, shocking; that’s not how Natalie sees it.
She says: ‘I was logical about it – I had the skills, I was single. I was in a social and financial position to go. They desperately needed nurses and I felt that was where I should be.’
Natalie, who is now an infection prevention nurse for Solent NHS Trust at St Mary’s Hospital, Milton, looks back on her time in Sierra Leone, from October 2014 until February 2017, in amazement.
Four weeks after applying for the volunteer nursing role with the King’s Sierra Leone Partnership, part of King’s College London Health Partnership, she was on a plane to Africa. ‘In Casablanca airport, while waiting for my onward flight to Sierra Leone, it was deadly silent,’ recalls Natalie.
‘Everybody there was getting on that plane, we were all stepping into dangerous situations. I remember thinking, “this is how people die. Am I being really stupid?”
‘It was the first time I’ve ever had to think about my own mortality. And healthcare workers I know did die.
‘When that happens you do question the decisions you make in life.
‘In a way, it was an amazing experience. I would not say enjoyable, but I’m so glad I went. I will never regret the decision for a second.’
Natalie’s role was initially for a few months at the main government hospital in Freetown. There she treated patients who had been struck down by the highy infectious and frequently fatal disease marked by fever and severe internal bleeding, and purely caught through bodily fluids
But it quickly became clear that the epidemic was not going to be over by Christmas 2014, as anticipated, but would take much longer.
The conditions were like nothing Natalie, who was the lead in infection control, had ever experienced.
‘I’d never been to Africa before. I’d backpacked around south-east Asia for six months when I was 25 but this was on another level,’ she says.
‘It is an extremely poor country, there is abject poverty. They feed themselves and that’s it.
‘There is no equivalent of the NHS, you have to pay for every aspect of healthcare – even down to needles, syringes and nurse’s gloves. It’s only free if provided by NGOs.
‘The infection control practices were very poor and there weren’t enough supplies of soap, running water or cleaning products. How do you run a hospital like that?
‘There was a deadly epidemic with a complete lack of resources and knowledge.’
Natalie was thrown straight in at the deep end and started work the day after she arrived. The eyes of the world were starting to turn to the humanitarian crisis in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, where the Ebola crisis had taken hold.
‘It was really traumatic,’ she sighs. ‘People were dying almost every hour and when they die of Ebola they die in a really horrible way. They hemorrhage from their face, they are really confused. They lose all their dignity. It’s a really horrible death. There is a lot of suffering.
‘And it wasn’t just old people. One of the first people I saw die was a big muscular lad. There were a lot of children and babies. Whole families were wiped out. It was a devastating experience. A humanitarian disaster in every way.’
And at times it felt like the disease would never loosen its grip. ‘Things were getting worse and worse and I remember thinking, “everyone in this country is going to be wiped out”. You couldn’t see an end to it. It did feel like the end of the world in some ways.
‘All we could do is stay to the end and keep going.’
And that’s exactly what Natalie did. She stayed on as a project manager and mentor putting together and implementing a national infection control training programme for government healthcare workers to ensure the country can deal with an outbreak in the future.
The aim was to get to point that they no longer needed her.
Natalie has nothing but praise for her colleagues. ‘The local nurses were amazing. They had a much higher chance of dying than international workers. They risked so much because of the stigma attached to working with Ebola.
‘They are the real heroes.’
‘We don’t know how lucky we are’
The Ebola outbreak in 2014 originated in Guinea and spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone, killing 11,000, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Sierra Leone country was left devastated. To try and stop the spread education stopped for a year.
Because of the practice of touching dead bodies in Sierra Leone, even funerals were banned. It was declared Ebola-free in March 2016.
Natalie Mounter trained in adult nursing in London and went on to specialise as an isolation ward nurse in Basingstoke which gave her the skills she needed to work in the midst of the Ebola crisis.
Part of her job was to set up procedures to ensure the hospitals could cope should there be another outbreak.
She is now an infection prevention nurse at St Mary’s Hospital, Milton, for Solent NHS Trust.
On coming back to the UK, Natalie says: ‘Everything is still very luxurious to me. When I first came back I was obsessed with having light all the time. It was such a lesson. We live in abundant luxury – free healthcare and education. It’s amazing.
‘It’s not until you don’t have those things that you appreciate them. We’re so lucky that we live in such a developed country.’