By Faith Leleu
Nicolas Perez understands the risks that come with getting to know patients infected with the Ebola virus. The disease has historically had a mortality rate of up to 90 per cent, and while the efforts of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) medical staff during the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa have brought that rate down to 50 per cent and even lower at many MSF treatment centres, working with patients who face such odds remains emotionally difficult.
“We’re not supposed to get attached,” says Perez, who recently returned to Canada from six weeks in Bo, Sierra Leone, where he helped build a new MSF treatment centre for the growing number of Ebola cases in the area. So, when a family of three — two sisters and one brother — were among the first patients to arrive at the centre, all showing symptoms of infection, Perez knew better than to hope too much. Still, he struck up a friendship with one of the sisters, Aminatou. “She was in better health,” he says, “and she was chatty and helped us with the others inside. She was also bored and wanted to go back to school.”
'Watsan' a critical component in the fight against Ebola
Perez has worked with MSF on several occasions since 2009 as a water and sanitation specialist. When he arrived in Bo, he and his team were immediately tasked with building a sanitation infrastructure for the treatment centre: digging wells, developing a plumbing system and undertaking countless other tasks necessary to get the facility up and running.
Water and sanitation measures — or “watsan” in the common MSF short-form — are a vital component of nearly all MSF medical interventions. But they are especially critical in the fight against Ebola, which is transmitted solely by the passing of infectious fluids from one person to another. “There is no margin for error so everything really has to be meticulous,” says Perez. “The staff is trained to work independently to manage water and waste, run the ambulances section and, unfortunately because of the high mortality rate, to manage the dead bodies safely.”
He also needed to recruit some 200 local, non-medical watsan staff to support the day-to-day operations of the centre — a team (members of which are pictured above) that proved itself not only up to the job of meeting MSF’s rigorous standards, but capable of teaching the staff of other aid organizations as well. “To me,” Perez says, “it was probably most satisfying to be able to take a step back and look at them do their job and train the international staff that came to help them.”
An outcome worth celebrating
Among the patients successfully treated at the newly operational centre was Perez’s friend Aminatou — and her siblings as well. “One by one, they got better,” he says. To celebrate this happy result, Perez told Aminatou — the girl who wanted so much to return to school — that he had a present for her, a book that she could keep. As it turns out, she and Perez’s colleagues found a way to celebrate his contribution to this success, too.
“On the day I came to bring her the book,” the hockey fan from Montreal recalls, “she was wearing a T-shirt of the Montreal Canadiens that our team had given her.”
Nicolas Perez's friend Aminatou in her new Montreal Canadiens shirt.
This article appears in the Winter 2015 issue of Field Notes, the MSF newsletter.