PAULINE Cafferkey, the Scottish nurse who faced a fight for her life after contracting the deadly Ebola virus while working for a charity in Sierra Leone, was discharged from hospital yesterday after making a full recovery.
In an exclusive interview with Scotland on Sunday before she left the Royal Free Hospital in London, Cafferkey admitted that at her lowest point she believed she would die and told her doctors: “That’s it. I’ve had enough. I can’t carry on any more.”
But yesterday as she prepared to return home to her family in Cambuslang, the 39-year-old community nurse said she was “very happy to be alive”.
Clutching a Saltire signed by members of the medical team who have cared for her since she was admitted to the high-level isolation unit on 30 December, Cafferkey listed the things she was looking forward to, including a bath – “I haven’t had one for some time now” – and vegetarian Chinese food. “I just want to get back to normal life,” she said.
Although doctors have declared her free of the Ebola virus, which has claimed the lives of more than 8,000 victims in West Africa, Cafferkey still faces a long journey to regain her strength. In hospital, cocooned within an isolation tent, she relied on a diet of Irn-Bru, Sugar Puffs and listening to The Archers to help her through her life-threatening ordeal.
She also spoke of the healing power of a piece of classical music – Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg – that she listened to during her recovery.
Yesterday a smiling but frail Cafferkey spoke movingly about the events that led to her being rushed from hospital in Glasgow to the Royal Free, which has the only specialist unit in the UK equipped to handle cases of the potentially fatal virus.
Cafferkey was one of 30 NHS medical volunteers from the UK who travelled to Sierra Leone last November to work at a Save the Children hospital in the highly infectious “red zone” just outside the capital, Freetown.
When she was there she kept a diary for Scotland on Sunday, writing about a family that was ravaged by the disease and the helplessness of caring for patients who were close to death.
During her time in Sierra Leone, Cafferkey wore a protective suit at all times when dealing with patients and their families. She says she has “no idea” how she contracted the disease and denies a report that she got it through human contact at a church service on Christmas Day.
After four weeks on the frontline in the battle against Ebola, Cafferkey flew back to London via Casablanca. She then caught a flight to Glasgow.
“I felt fine throughout the whole journey. It wasn’t until I got home that I started to get the shivers,” she said. “We were all given thermometers when we got back and I took my temperature but thought it might be a urine infection or something like that.
“I contacted the Brownlee Centre in Glasgow and told them I felt unwell. I got taken to the Brownlee Centre by ambulance and had my blood taken. They were aware where I had travelled from.
‘I’ve got a fight on my hands’
“I had a lovely doctor in Glasgow who had the horrible job of breaking the news to me that I had Ebola. I just said, ‘I’ve got a fight on my hands,’ as I knew what potentially could happen to me and did happen to me.
“It wasn’t a shock to me, and being a nurse helped.”
She added: “Obviously it crossed my mind how I caught it, but I’ve no idea. I never went to church on Christmas Day. I never worked on Christmas Day.
“I didn’t get steadily worse and I was fine for the first two or three days and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, but then I did deteriorate.”
On 3 January the hospital issued a brief statement on their website announcing that Cafferkey’s condition had gradually deteriorated over the past two days and she was now critically ill. While she received round-the-clock care, her worried family could only watch her suffering from outside the isolation unit.
It was at this point that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Prime Minister David Cameron and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt sent their messages of support to the care worker who had put her life at risk to help others.
Cafferkey said yesterday that during her worst days she wasn’t in a coma but was semi-conscious as doctors fought to save her.
She said: “I definitely wasn’t unconscious and my mind just blanked out what was happening to me.
“I was sick and on lots of medication – there was one point when there were one or two doctors around me and I said, ‘That’s it. I’ve had enough, I can’t carry on anymore’.
“My family weren’t allowed in, they could only get so far – there was a window they could look through but they weren’t with me.
“I thought I was fighting it, but at that point I said ‘I’ve had enough, it’s too much’.
‘I lost a week of my life’
“There were certain things I was in pain with. I had quite a nasty rash and touching my skin was painful, the nerves. It was extremely painful when I was touched and having my blood pressure taken was sheer agony.
“I had a central line taking my blood, so thankfully I didn’t need to get jagged all the time.
“I remember saying to my sister ‘I’ve been here a week now’ and she said, ‘No, it’s two weeks’ – so I lost a week of my life, although small snippets are coming back to me. I had no sense of time whatsoever.”
During that lost time, Cafferkey was treated with an experimental anti-virus drug, ZMabb, which was flown in from Canada, and blood plasma from survivors. The drug ZMapp, which was used to successfully treat another British Ebola sufferer, William Pooley, was unavailable.
Slowly, Cafferkey’s immune system began to fight back against the virus and she began to grow incrementally stronger. On 12 January the hospital announced she was no longer critical after a nine-day fight for life.
Dr Michael Jacobs, head of the infectious diseases team at the Royal Free, who was in charge of Cafferkey’s treatment, said yesterday: “We were clearly focused on giving Pauline the best possible care we could. But in the end it probably comes down to the fact that she had to cure herself. She used her own immune system, which has cleared the virus, but we’re very fortunate here to have specialist facilities.”
As she began to recover from the most debilitating effects of the illness, Cafferkey sought soothing distractions. “I was given an iPad by the Royal Free Charity and that was like a lifeline for me – I don’t know what I would have done without it,” she said. “My concentration was pretty poor as I recovered, so I was just using it for short periods. It let me listen to music and that was the main thing.
“I listened to a lot of happy music and the pharmacists put together a playlist for me. I don’t remember exactly what was on it but it helped.”
Cafferkey wrote in her Scotland on Sunday diary piece that she felt sorry for the young children who had “these alien-type people” caring for them. So how did she feel about being the one treated by doctors in “space suits”?
“I had seen pictures of the tent at the Royal Free and I was fully aware of what it was for – I wouldn’t say I took to it like a fish to water but it was a very easy transition for me and it wasn’t stressful,” she replied.
“I thought I was lucky because I could see the faces of the people who were treating me. Over in Sierra Leone the patients just saw hands going into their tents.”
‘I’m looking forward to going home’
She went on to describe her long road to recovery and how a piece of classical music provided her with the inspiration to carry out her rehabilitation.
“It wasn’t an automatic thing but being able to pick up my iPad was a good sign,” Cafferkey said.
“The past week or so I’ve started to get into a daily routine which has helped me settle down and helped me stop getting frustrated. I had a favourite piece of classical music, which is Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg, that I’d do my stretches to, then I’d get my blood tested while listening to The Archers, then I would go to sleep for an hour.”
Cafferkey said she was looking forward to going home and getting back to normal, but she won’t be returning to overseas aid work in the near future.
“I’m looking forward to going home, I just want to see my friends and family. I just want to get back to normal, get my strength back, as I’ve lost a lot of weight, and eventually return to work – obviously that’s going to take some time. I’ve got a great job. I’m working with babies under the age of five,” she said.
“I’ll be having a break from aid work and I’ve no plans to return to it at the moment, but who knows in the future.
“I don’t think it will change me. I’ve heard people say you should live your life to the max and that kind of thing, but I was doing a good job of living my life before I got ill.”
Once she felt better, Cafferkey learned about how much interest her story had generated and she joked yesterday about her “imaginary partner” Michael, who was mentioned in some reports. She said: “I’ve never met this partner. I haven’t got a boyfriend. Can you tell me what he’s like?”
Cafferkey said she would love to go back to Sierra Leone for a holiday at some point.
“It’s an absolutely stunning place. The beaches, the mountains and the people are great. There’s also amazing wildlife out there but we couldn’t see much of it as there were restrictions on where we could go and what we could do,” she said.
There have been recent signs that the battle against Ebola is being won, as reported cases appear to be falling. Cafferkey expressed her pride at the part she has played in the fight against the deadly virus.
“I think I’m very fortunate to be a part of the fight against Ebola. I have absolutely no regrets about going over there,” she said.
“The staff I was working with were great. A couple of volunteers came to visit me. It’s not one person, it’s the whole team of NHS volunteers who went out there – we’ve become very close and will be for however long.”
Recent reports say healthcare workers and others at high risk from Ebola could be given an experimental vaccine as early as next week following the shipment of the first doses to Monrovia in Liberia, according to the manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline.
The parents of Ebola survivor William Pooley said earlier this month that there had been no official confirmation that his blood plasma had been used in Cafferkey’s treatment.
How would Cafferkey feel about her survivor’s plasma now being used to help those diagnosed with Ebola?
“I’m all up for it,” she said. “There’s no reason not to. Anything that helps research.”
Nicola Sturgeon was among those who expressed delight and relief
Last night, Nicola Sturgeon was among those who expressed delight and relief that Cafferkey had made a complete recovery.
“I am delighted to hear that Pauline Cafferkey has now been discharged from hospital. Ebola is a terrible disease, and the fact that she has made this recovery is a tremendous tribute to the work of the NHS staff who have been committed to her care over the last few weeks,” said Sturgeon.
“Like all her fellow volunteer health workers, she has shown tremendous bravery in going to West Africa to help tackle the Ebola outbreak. I hope that she will now be given the time and space she needs to recuperate after her illness.”
As for Cafferkey herself, as she prepared to leave London yesterday she saved her last words to express her thanks to Dr Jacobs and the team at the Royal Free.
“Thanks for saving my life, Dr Mike and his amazing team of doctors, the matron, the nurses and all the other people that I didn’t meet working behind the scenes to keep things going,” she said.
“They were always very reassuring and I knew I was in the best hands.
“I’m definitely going to keep in touch. I’ve got a strong bond with the place and I’ll be sad to leave, but now I want to go home.”
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