Scots Ebola doctor tells of ‘harrowing’ experience

Dr Chris Mair has been helping the Save the Children team in Kerry Town, near the capital of Freetown. File picture: Getty
Dr Chris Mair has been helping the Save the Children team in Kerry Town, near the capital of Freetown. File picture: Getty
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A SCOTS doctor working at an Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone has spoken of his “harrowing” experience - and revealed an astonishing 100 doctors in the village had died from the outbreak before international action eventually kicked in.

Dr Chris Mair, 60, recently set off from his home in Bonar Bridge, Sutherland, where he practices, to join the Save the Children team working in Kerry Town, near the capital Freetown.

In an email message to NHS Highland, he has described the horrific circumstances he’s encountered there.

He said: “Each patient has a slightly different story but they’re equally tragic and heart-rending. It is impossible not to get upset on occasions.”

And he added: “You may wonder, ‘Where are the local doctors?’ There are none. Up to 100 died before the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) and procedures were put in place – another unreported tragedy.”

Dr Mair set off for West Africa on 22 November, having decided he simply could not sit back and do nothing to help in what has become a major humanitarian crisis.

He hopes to return home between Christmas and New Year.

He wrote: “It has been a whirlwind time and we are well settled into the work at Kerry Town. The facility was trumpeted just prior to our departure but unfortunately suffered an early problem when a Cuban doctor became infected.

“On the same site is a separate military facility which has been hugely helpful in helping out the issue which led to that incident. Procedures are more robust and the unit in the last week has increased its capability from 20 to 40 quite comfortably.

“We have a set rota, including nights, and the care has been of a very high standard. Most of us come in on days off to train new staff, see patients and stock the cupboards.”

Describing the work as “harrowing”, he added: “It is impossible not to get upset on occasions but the team are all quite seasoned, though none as old as me, and step up to the plate.”

Before he went to South Africa, Dr Mair spent a spell in Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire, where he received training and was briefed on what to expect.

While working in Kerry Town Dr Mair wears personal protective equipment (PPE), which he puts on – or “donned”, at they call it – with the help of a “buddy” who must check that it’s been put on correctly.

“Only when you are sure your buddy has correctly donned do you write their name on their forehead and the time on their shoulder.”

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He has been given an African name, Foday – “which means good man, very flattering. Every time they see me they use my name and giggle”.

He added that, despite the tragedy he sees daily, “the whole atmosphere in Africa is quite infectious and constantly flattering.

“The real heroes in this place are clearly the local staff. The hygienists who clear up after the patients and the local healthcare workers, nurses and community health officers.

“They give up everything in being here. Most are isolated from their families, who are too scared to have them home.”

On a lighter note, Dr Mair said: “Every time someone survives, and it is about 50 per cent, there is a celebration. The patient has a laminated certificate confirming they have survived and are no longer infectious – a very moving ceremony where there is African chanting and the patient and sometimes their relatives give a little speech.”

Dr Mair explained that he had been nominated to look after the paediatric ward, adding: “Children under the age of five and especially under two always die.

“This week, however, we are starting to break with this, with a four-year-old surviving and yesterday a two-year-old boy went home.”

The father-of-three is able to keep in touch with his wife Dr Janet Mair, who also practises at the Creich Surgery in Bonar Bridge, via video phone.

She said: “It has been difficult for him at times, obviously, but he is a very calm person and is cool-headed under pressure. I am very proud of him.”

The Kerry Town Centre is run jointly by the Department for International Development and Save the Children, and is one of six set up by the UK Government as part of its effort to spread the halt of Ebola.

It was built by British Army engineers and local workers, and has dedicated beds for infected healthcare workers and separate sites for suspected and confirmed cases of Ebola.

Dr Mair was selected to go following a vetting process to determine what particular skills he had to offer.

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