Ebola outbreak: Canadian Forces team on tough mission 'treating something you can't see'

CBC News takes an exclusive look inside Operation Sirona in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone, where 37 Canadian Forces personnel are working with their U.K. counterparts to treat local and international health-care workers infected with Ebola.

Operation Sirona puts personnel on front lines in Sierra Leone's battle against deadly virus

Lt.-Cmdr. Melanie Espina, lead doctor of Operation Sirona, ties a biohazard apron on Master Cpl. Nanette Black, a medic, just before the Canadian pair enter the Red Zone in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone, to treat Ebola patients. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC News )

The heat in Kerry Town is stifling. Officially, it’s 33 C, but the combination of afternoon sun and high humidity makes it feel much hotter.

So imagine how it feels to step into thick rubber boots, a hooded biohazard suit and a mask.  

“It’s like you’re wearing a big plastic bag in 35-degree heat and you’re just boiling in your own sweat,”  Lt. Shelly Maynard says. 

Despite the discomfort, the critical care nurse from Halifax says her first three weeks on the ground in Sierra Leone have been rewarding.

“Just being able to nurse in a different environment and to care for a population that I’m not used to has been a wonderful experience,” she says.

Maynard is one of 37 Canadian Forces medical personnel deployed to Ebola-stricken Sierra Leone under Operation Sirona.  

The mission takes its name from a Celtic goddess of healing. The Canadian team, made up of four doctors, 28 nurses and medics and five support staff, are front-line caregivers to local and international health-care workers who have contracted Ebola in the West African country while treating others.

Tough mission

“I think [the mission] is quite tough,” says Lt.-Col. Gary O'Neil, the Canadian mission commander.

"I mean, it’s not Afghanistan, there’s not a lot of kinetic activity going on around us with IEDs and bombs and stuff, but you’re treating something you can’t see."

Lt.-Cmdr. Melanie Espina wears full personal protective equipment to treat Ebola-infected health-care workers in the Red Zone at the military field hospital in Kerry Town. (Carolyn Dunn)
That is the deadly virus that has hit Sierra Leone harder than any other African country. Nearly half of the more than 20,000 reported Ebola cases have occurred in Sierra Leone.   

Lt.-Cmdr. Melanie Espina is the lead doctor of the team's six-month deployment.

We catch up with her just as she and a partner, medic Master Cpl. Nanette Black, are suiting up to go inside the Red Zone, where four Ebola patients are awaiting their care.   

It’s a painstaking procedure of donning one piece of personal protection equipment at a time, all under the watchful eye of a monitor.  

There can be no mistakes. This biohazard gear is the only thing coming between them and the virus that is making their patients critically ill.

"It was definitely something I was nervous about doing until I learned a lot more about it, until I got the training and actually started to work," Espina says. 

She and Black move confidently, helping each other with each step and double-checking each other’s every move.

Only essential staff

When one pair of gloves doesn’t fit quite right, they immediately discard them for another.

After donning their face masks and doing a final check of every part of each other’s suit, Espina and Black go to work.  

The patient area is strictly off limits to anyone who is not essential medical staff.

Lt.-Cmdr. Melanie Espina, lead doctor of Operation Sirona, checks the fit of her face mask. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC News )
The 80-bed field hospital at Kerry Town was built by the U.K. military and opened in October.  

The Canadian contingent arrived Dec. 20 to work in integrated teams with their U.K. counterparts. 

One purpose of a treatment centre specifically focused on treating health-care workers is to give assurances to international health-care workers whose service is so needed.

"To provide them with a little bit of incentive,” Espina says. "To know that if they came and volunteered in Sierra Leone, there would be a facility dedicated to looking after them if they became ill.”

The U.K. officer in charge of the facility, Lt. Col Alison McCourt, says giving local health-care workers their best chance of survival is pivotal to the future of Sierra Leone.

Focused on a victory

"Health-care workers have had an alarmingly high rate of transmission of infection and they’ll be critically important to Sierra Leone in the future as they try to rebuild their health structure,” she says. 

Espina is focused on an early victory today.

After a medical set-back and coming close to death, a patient who was admitted around the same time the Canadians arrived was well enough to sit outside and for the first time see his caregivers without masks and biohazard suits.

"So he could see our faces and see the people who had been looking after him.” 

Espina begins to tear up at the recent fresh memory.

“He was waving at us and blowing kisses. Most of us actually started crying. That one moment there kind of makes it all worth it."

CBC News is back on the ground in Africa, tracking the latest fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone and the efforts Canadians are making to contain the deadly virus. You can follow all of our news coverage on CBC TV, radio and online.


Carolyn Dunn

National reporter

Carolyn Dunn is a longtime national reporter for CBC News. Her Canadian postings and assignments have taken her from St. John's to Calgary. She has reported extensively abroad including East, West and North Africa and has done several tours in Afghanistan. Have a story tip? Email


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