Photo: IFRC/Lisa Pattison
Meet Jestina Boyle. She's a lifeline. A comfort at someone's loneliest and darkest moment. A connection between families separated by a vicious virus.
Jestina volunteers at the Red Cross Ebola treatment centre in Kenema, Sierra Leone. Her role is to provide 'psychosocial assistance' - a combination of counselling, encouragement, shared grief and education. It's a role as critical to survival as any nurse or doctor.
"Often when patients are admitted to the centre with a positive diagnosis, many want to give up. But I don't let them," Jestina insists. "I tell them to eat, to drink to walk around, to do something. I give them hope."
Many of the centre's patients have already experienced terrible loss: some are the only surviving members of their family, infected while caring for their loves ones; others have unwittingly infected their spouses or children. Needless to say, feelings of guilt are enormous and patients can side into depression.
There is no cure for Ebola, but the disease can be survived with supportive care. In these circumstances a patient's outlook can make all the difference.
"Treatment is only part of survival," Jestina insists "It makes the body strong but with a weak mind, the person won't survive. Now, when I make the mind strong, the body becomes stronger and people survive."
The fear and stigma surrounding Ebola has strained the ties that normally bind families. Part of Jestina's role is to maintain a connection between patients and their remaining loved ones. "I get a number from the patient to call, so I can facilitate a conversation with those back home. Although the patients can't hold the phone because of contamination, I speak to the caller and speak over the fence to the patient. That way we keep the patient laughing and joking. The distance between the patient and their home is smaller."
Those who survive the disease have a 'happy shower' - a final rinse in chlorinated water - before leaving the restricted area of the treatment centre. While Jestina shares in the survivors' joy at that moment, she is also preparing the community for their return. "We explain to the community that the person no longer has Ebola, they are not dangerous."
Jestina's work is not without personal cost. "I have had to move three times in Kenema," she says. "Once, when my landlord found out that I worked at the centre, he told me to leave that day. I tried to explain that I do not handle the patients but he would not listen."
She is also finding ways to cope with the human suffering she sees each day. "I sing to keep myself happy. It's what I have to do when I see so many people dying. I see that my work has helped people; more are walking out of this centre Ebola-free."
This special and immensely difficult volunteer role reflects Jestina's heart, history and personality. "I used to work with child soldiers, people no one wanted to work with. I'm a nurse by profession and I care for people. That includes Ebola patients."
Want to help people like Jestina continue their work? Please give to our Ebola Outbreak Appeal.
Original story by Lisa Pattison, IFRC.