Member Voices: Debbie Hawker

This month, with World Humanitarian Day marked on 19th August, we’re celebrating our members and the teams they work alongside all over the world. 

The local members of our team were amazing! They had been working for months during the epidemic and had international staff come and go but they welcomed us with open arms.” 

I met Tony Redmond (from UK-Med) when I was volunteering in Uganda in 2010 and listening to him talk about all of the work that he had done inspired me. He told me about the register and I signed up straight away!  

My first employment with UK-Med was to Kerry Town Ebola Treatment Centre in Sierra Leone. I think I felt every single emotion on the journey over- I was excited, scared and full of anticipation. Our team had just finished an intense week of training and had got to know each other quickly so I knew that I had the support of everyone, which helped me cope. 

There were times during the week-long Ebola training course when I thought “can I actually do this?” As soon as I arrived in Sierra Leone, I knew that I could! I met some of the most amazing, inspirational people during the deployment. UK-Med and Save the Children made sure that we were prepared and felt ready for the job and the support of the team was invaluable. Towards the end of the deployment it felt like working at the Ebola Treatment Centre became a normal day at work. 

The most difficult part of the deployment was coping in the personal protective equipment in 30 degree heat! We had been training in the UK in January and I had felt hot and bothered even then, so it was very daunting to retrain in the heat. However, it became routine and just part of the job so I came to enjoy it.  

Before leaving for Sierra Leone I had to have some difficult conversations with my close family and friends when I was deciding whether to put myself forward to be considered for deployment. They were very worried about me and I felt guilty about causing that concern. However, they supported me all of the way and I couldn’t have done it without their support.  

There are lots of great memories but the best overall feeling was probably after the first week when I had got to know my international and local colleagues and felt like we were all working together as a close-knit team. There was a great sense that we were doing something that felt really important and we were all in it together, which made the team soon feel like family. 

The local members of our team were amazing! They had been working for months during the epidemic and had international staff come and go but they welcomed us with open arms. They taught us about the outbreak so far, local customs and we gained so much from their experience.  

I remember a 4 year old girl who had to be nursed separately to her mother as she was Ebola positive and mum was negative. Trying to communicate with her through the personal protective equipment and with the language barrier was really difficult but we tried to find innovative ways entertain her and reassure her. She survived- it was such a great day when she was discharged home!

I think the best advice I received before deployment was to know your limits. In the red zone, the difference between feeling tired and feeling faint could be 5 minutes. You needed to know when to get out so that you could decontaminate safely without putting yourself or your colleagues at risk.  

If asked I would advise my fellow humanitarian workers to go on training courses, learn about the sector and be as prepared as possible so that you can do a great job.  

Working in the Ebola Treatment Centre was a huge life experience for me. I learned a lot about how to cope in stressful situations and how to adapt to change. It made me feel even more grateful for our wonderful NHS. I came back with fresh ideas and new coping strategies that I could use in my role in the UK.  And yes, I’d do it again. 

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