GP who swapped Sheffield surgery for Sierra Leone tells of fight against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley has returned from Sierra Leone wher he has been helping the fight against Ebola.
Dr Charles Heatley has returned from Sierra Leone wher he has been helping the fight against Ebola.
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He swapped his Sheffield surgery for Sierra Leone as he volunteered to be on the front line in the fight against the deadly Ebola virus.

Now a city GP has spoken of his experiences during his five weeks in West Africa during the height of the Ebola outbreak, which has claimed almost 9,000 lives.

A public warning in Sierra Leone

A public warning in Sierra Leone

Dr Charles Heatley, who works at Birley Health Centre, flew out to Sierra Leone in late November and was plunged straight into the desperate battle to save lives of adults and children struck down by the deadly virus.

There have been more than 22,000 reported Ebola cases, mostly in West Africa.

In Sierra Leone alone, more than 10,000 people have been affected, with 3,199 dying.

Now safely back home in Sheffield, father-of-three Dr Heatley said it had been an unforgettable and emotional experience.

The Ebola Treatment Centre in Sierra Leone

The Ebola Treatment Centre in Sierra Leone

The 53-year-old was inspired to get involved with the relief efforts after hearing about an appeal for medical volunteers by the Department for International Development.

He said DFID were offering to cover the work of doctors who went out to help – meaning he was able to temporarily leave his practice and his other job as acute health clinical lead for Sheffield Clinical Commissioning Group.

Dr Heatley is one of more than 1,600 medical staff who have volunteered to help in Sierra Leone in tackling the outbreak.

Britain has committed £325 million to the fight against Ebola and British doctors have played a key role in a response to the ‘unprecedented’ outbreak – helping to diagnose and isolate Ebola cases more quickly, trebling the number of treatment beds, supporting burial teams and researching a vaccine.

The Ebola Treatment Centre in Sierra Leone

The Ebola Treatment Centre in Sierra Leone

The work is being carried out not only for humanitarian reasons, but also because halting the virus in West Africa is the most important way of stopping the spread of Ebola to the UK.

Dr Heatley said he was determined to play his part in stopping the Ebola outbreak spreading further.

“I was an infectious diseases doctor for a year many years ago,” he said.

“Reading the reports about what was happening in West Africa, I could see it was a very big problem and a threat to the population and countries surrounding it. I knew that if it gets out of hand, it will keep coming back. With outbreaks normally, once it is identified, everybody comes in and clamps down on it. That just didn’t happen in West Africa for reasons we are not completely sure about but partly because they are so poor in Sierra Leone and the medical system is not very well funded or safe.

The Ebola Treatment Centre

The Ebola Treatment Centre

“I recognised the response had to be quick and DFID was working to help. It seemed an obvious thing to do to volunteer.”

He said his family had backed his decision to go out there, despite the risks.

“My wife has been totally supportive right from the start. She is a teacher and she used to be a nurse and she was thinking about how she could do it. I had her unreserved support. My children were supportive – one was a bit frightened to start with but the other two knew that I wanted to do it. My mum was stopped in her tracks when I first told her but she said she was very proud. I could not have done it without that support. My practice was also absolutely brilliant about it.”

After nine days of residential training in York with other medical volunteers from Britain and Norway, Dr Heatley flew out to Africa and arrived in Sierra Leone on November 22.

He was based at the Kerry Town Ebola Treatment Centre, where doctors were responsible for people with confirmed cases of Ebola – many of whom were close to death.

Dr Heatley and other British staff worked alongside medical professionals from Sierra Leone and Cuba.

Charles Heatley in Sierra Leone

Charles Heatley in Sierra Leone

In searing temperatures that could reach up to 38C, doctors had to put on layers of specialist equipment before treating patients.

The protective equipment included a full body suit, wellies, two pairs of gloves, a mask, surgical hat, apron, hood, visor and goggles.

“Working in the treatment centre, it was hot and it was basic but we were focused on providing the best care we could to people while remaining safe,” he said.

“I could manage to wear the suit for maybe an hour or an hour-and-a-half before I could feel my pulse racing and felt that I was starting to get dehydrated. You were completely insulated in the suit. The suits were water-proof and there was no where for the sweat to go – sometimes I had to literally pour it out of my wellies.”

The need for caution because of the risks to brave health workers are clear from the statistics – more than 800 have been infected, with 488 reported deaths among those on the frontline of treating Ebola.

Dr Heatley said the need for protective clothing and the extreme heat made the job of caring for suffering patients highly challenging.

“It was incredibly difficult to do the most basic care,” he said.

“If you only had an hour, you had to plan out so carefully what you were going to do beforehand.

“I was treating everything from relatively minor illnesses to people who were dying with dreadful diarrhoea and vomiting.”

The protective suits meant the usual rapport a doctor would have with a patient was taken away.

“Sierra Leone is a country of young people and the life expectancy is 53. Most people are young, fit and healthy,” he said.

“It didn’t affect me as much as I expected it to. You can’t engage with people in the same way when they are very ill and you are behind two masks. You didn’t make the same level of connection.

“But I was affected, particularly seeing children die.

“On the other hand, to see some children who were very, very sick get better was incredibly rewarding.”

During his five weeks in the country, he did start to see the situation improving.

“We started giving people intravenous fluids and we noticed improvements in mortality,” he said. “But it still remained around a 40 per cent mortality rate. Imagine a flu epidemic in Sheffield where 40 per cent of people are dying – that is what we were dealing with.”

Dr Heatley was glad to return home to see his family shortly after Christmas after ‘running on adrenalin’ for the first four weeks of his time there, but starting to tire in the final seven days.

When he returned, he was put in partial quarantine for 21 days. He was allowed home and to see friends and family, but was kept away from patients, could not travel on public transport and had to ring a nurse from NHS England every day to report his temperature.

He has just returned to work and said it is wonderful to be back at his practice.

“It was so nice getting back to the patients who have been so lovely and really supportive,” he said.

And the efforts of Dr Heatley and his peers in fighting Ebola appear to be paying off, with the latest update from the World Health Organisation stating the focus is now shifting ‘from slowing transmission to ending the epidemic’.

For the first time since June, last week saw less than 100 new confirmed cases across Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

Dr Heatley said he was proud to have played a part in the relief effort.

“If somebody said wind yourself back to early November, I would do it again without any hesitation. I’m privileged to have had this opportunity.”

The NHS team in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone

The NHS team in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone

An Ebola survivor with her discharge certificate

An Ebola survivor with her discharge certificate