For all the things she was prepared for in Sierra Leone, it was the unexpected death of a colleague that shattered the fragile edge between emotional detachment and grief for Edmonton aid worker Laura Keegan.
“Being in an Ebola treatment centre is a very scary thing," Keegan says from her Edmonton home, where she is nearing the end of a mandatory 21-day quarantine following her return to Edmonton earlier this month.
“Burying a colleague was definitely the hardest experience,” says Keegan, fighting back tears, “for someone who gave his life to fight Ebola.”
The director of resource development and public engagement for HIV Edmonton, Keegan was part of the 25-member Red Cross emergency response delegation of international aid workers sent to help with the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.
As part of the psycho-social team, Keegan spent four weeks in January in the Kenema district of Sierra Leone, and was responsible for looking after the psychological first aid of both patients and staff.
For patients, it meant arranging dignified and safe burials in a West African culture that involves close contact with the dead.
“That’s one of the pieces that has driven the epidemic,” says Keegan. “They’re most infectious at that time, so family members can’t be part of that burial.”
Instead, says Keegan, photographs of the body were shown to family members to prove their loved one had actually died.
For the first two weeks, Keegan managed two burials a day. But as time went on, the funerals started to drop off, when the number of new infections noticeably declined.
”The day all of us will always remember is when our last suspect case was able to go home,” says Keegan.
She recalls the day she wrote down three zeroes. “We had no suspected, no confirmed, and no probable cases, which meant our Ebola treatment centre was empty.”
It was a milestone none of them expected to see during their time in Sierra Leone.
“That was a really exciting time to know you were getting through the days without having to plan funerals.”
Her first international aid experience was “life changing,” she says.
“I feel like I’ve left a piece of myself in Sierra Leone.”
She looks forward to the opportunity for more international missions.
“The strength and resilience of the people is truly miraculous. The spark they have, and will they have, is truly a gift.”
Ebola is a highly infectious and deadly disease that is transmitted through contact with infectious body fluids. Latest figures from the World Health Organization show the virus has killed 9,637 men, women and children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.