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18 May 2016

Nurse Pauline Cafferkey to open up about Ebola ordeal on ITV documentary

Pauline Cafferkey, the nurse who contracted the Ebola virus while working in Sierra Leone, talks about her battle to overcome health challenges including epilepsy in an ITV documentary.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Ms Cafferkey revealed she now has to take a selection of drugs every day, “to keep epileptic seizures, spinal swelling, nerve pain and generalised body aches at bay”.

"Get on with being a nurse"

Speaking to Julie Etchingham, Ms Cafferkey explains she is opening up about her experience with Ebola in order to bring the episode to a close and to enable her to get on with being a nurse again.

As a nurse with 18 years’ experience, Ms Cafferkey, 40, had volunteered abroad before, working with some of the most afflicted people in the world, in Sudan and Bangladesh. It came as no surprise to her family when nurse Cafferkey decided to go to Ebola-stricken Sierra Leone to help on the front line.

Catching Ebola

Ms Cafferkey spent three weeks working in the treatment centre in December 2014, but has no idea how she caught Ebola.

Hours after her return home to Glasgow, she was shaking with a high temperature.  A specialist ambulance arrived from the infectious diseases unit in Glasgow. 

"I was mortified"

“The paramedics were wearing personal protective equipment. I was mortified. I was just hoping they would come before sun came up because I didn’t want anyone to see it... I’m quite a private person, to have all that fuss made.”

When she received the Ebola diagnosis, she couldn’t bear to break the news to her family: “I asked my doctor to inform them because I couldn’t do it. I was just thinking I could die a horrible death in a couple of days.”

Flown to Royal Free Hospital

She was flown to the Royal Free Hospital in London in an RAF Hercules, where her condition deteriorated fast.

“My mouth was very painful and swollen - which I’d seen in my own patients - and then my body became swollen. I think my organs had started to fail at that point.

"Just let me go, I've had enough"

“I just felt horrendous - and I actually said, ‘I can’t carry on. Just let me go, I’ve had enough.’”

The hospital announced Ms Cafferkey’s condition as critical.  She said: “Obviously I knew, being a nurse, that death was imminent.”

Turning a corner

Miraculously, after three weeks in the isolation tent, and after largely experimental medical treatments, she began to turn a corner. Letters from well-wishers flooded in, which nurses passed through the sealed delivery box in her tent. 

“I was crying, but they weren’t tears of sadness. I just couldn’t believe strangers would feel the need to write to me, that people of so many faiths were praying for me. It was difficult for me to get my head around - I’m just a nurse doing a job, who got unlucky and caught a virus.”

Pride of Britain Award

Nurse Cafferkey made a remarkable recovery.  She was honoured with a Pride of Britain Award and was able to return to work. However, in October 2015, she became ill again with meningitis.  Doctors suspected the Ebola virus lingered in her spinal fluid, triggering meningitis as it returned, a first in the history of the virus: no known survivor of Ebola had experienced such a relapse ten months after the original infection.

"Worse than Ebola"

Ms Cafferkey was transferred back to the Royal Free Hospital:

“This was worse than Ebola because of the swelling in my brain. It was just horrendous. I said to one of the doctors ‘Just drill a hole in my head’ - just to relieve the pressure. I would cry until I wanted to scream.”

"I got world class care, and they didn't"

In her delirious state, Ms Cafferkey would mistake the nurses stroking her hair through the gloves attached to her isolation tent for Sierra Leoneans.

“I had crazy hallucinations: there were a bunch of Sierra Leoneans (sic) and they also had Ebola, but they were outside the tent, and I was saying to the nurse ‘treat them, treat them’. Subconsciously, I must have had a degree of guilt [as to] why I got world class care, and they didn’t.”

Doctors were able to save Ms Cafferkey from the brink of death again by using the same vaccines as they had used before.  The treatment worked, but more slowly and painfully this time.  Ms Cafferkey walks with a slight limp and sometimes has trouble with short memory loss, back pain and tinnitus, all lasting effects of the meningitis. 

No regrets

Three months since her last admission to the Royal Free, doctors stress it’s extremely unlikely she will ever become unwell with Ebola again and poses no risk to the general public. 

In spite of her ordeal, Nurse Cafferkey has no regrets about her decision to go to Sierra Leone: “There is nothing more rewarding than giving”she says. “Nothing.”

“I hope that the time will come soon, where I’m not that ‘Ebola Nurse’ - where I’m just myself again. I just hope it hurries up.”

This article was published in The Telegraph on 15 May.

Pauline’s Story, Living with Ebola airs on Thursday 19 May at 7.30pm on ITV.


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