Holloway Ebola medic thought she might never return from Sierra Leone

Rebecca Stretch in front of the chlorine supply used for decontamination

Rebecca Stretch in front of the chlorine supply used for decontamination - Credit: Archant

A Holloway medic has told of the moment she thought she might die while helping to fight the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa.

Rebecca Stretch, 43, spent a month in Sierra Leone treating those who had contracted the disease in overcrowded hospitals that were low on supplies, staff and sanitation.

Ms Stretch worked 14 hour days in the hospital where William Pooley, the first Briton to contract the disease, had been working just weeks before.

Despite having worked in the country during its civil war in 2002, she said things were much worse than she anticipated.

“It was much more chaotic and dangerous than I had expected,” said Ms Stretch, who specialises in the prevention and control of infectious diseases for Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust.

“You know how to protect yourself but there were a lot of risk factors and a lot could go wrong in a short period.

“There was one weekend where I thought I might not make it home. Staff had become unwell and we tried to keep our distance from one another but it is easier said than done. “The same weekend we discovered the chlorine we were using had been tampered with so we didn’t know what the concentration levels were in the water we used for decontamination. I thought ‘I’ve blown it. I’ve had too many near misses’.”

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In Sierra Leone strikes meant that supplies and equipment were limited, and she had to wear a full body suit when treating patients suspected of having the disease.

Ms Stretch said: “It was frightening at times but you have to detach yourself from the situation. I’d made a commitment so I couldn’t walk away. I would have the odd wave of panic but I’d chosen to stay so I just got on with it.

“I can’t explain the plight of the patients and the conditions in which we were trying to look after in – no linen, not always washed, water delivered but not given to patients, sharps lying about, Oral Rehydration Solution not replenished.

“It was so overwhelming. The most useful thing that I contributed was probably to improve infection control procedures, such as introducing one-way gates into the hospital.

“All I can take away is that I tried.”

Not all of the memories that Ms Stretch will take away were negative, as some of those she encountered recovered from the disease.

She said: “There were still moments of happiness – nice bits and even some funny bits. We were staying in a lovely guest house with very good staff.

“I met two young brothers who both recovered from Ebola – their names were Success and Courage which was quite poignant. There are a lot of orphans now too.

“I met some amazing people and I miss them. We supported each other and could understand what we had all experienced. It was sad to say goodbye – and we could only hug in our full PPE suits.”