Strong minds save lives: Providing psychosocial support in Sierra Leone
By: Lisa Pattison, IFRC
“My nickname is Happy Shower,” smiles Jestina Boyle, the Red Cross psychosocial assistance volunteer at the Kenema Ebola treatment centre in eastern Sierra Leone. Through Jestina’s encouragement and counselling skills, more patients are experiencing the so-called ‘happy shower’ which is what survivors go through before crossing the threshold of the restricted high-risk area back to the normal world. The happy shower is an affirmation that they have survived this vicious virus and are washing away the disease.
“Often when patients are admitted to the centre with a positive diagnosis, many want to give up. But I don’t let them. I tell them to eat, to drink, to walk around, to do something, just don’t give up,” says Jestina. Many of the patients have already experienced terrible loss to the disease. In some cases, their immediate family has succumbed to the disease and they are the only one remaining. Other times they have been infected while caring for someone and have then unwittingly contaminated their spouse and children. Needless to say, feelings of guilt can be enormous and many patients slide into depression.
Jestina is a lifeline for many in these dark times. “I give them hope. So many thought they were dead and then, by changing their thinking, it helps them survive. We pray together, or they see me praying for them and they realize that it is not their time. God has brought them here to survive.”
Ebola is inflicting challenges on the individual, family and community, putting much strain on once close ties. Maintaining links with the patient’s family or friends is critical to keeping patients motivated. Jestina has a phone which friends or family can call to have an update on their loved one’s health status. “I get a number from the patient to call, so I can facilitate a conversation with those back home. Although the patients can’t hold the phone because of contamination, I speak to the caller and speak over the fence to the patient. That way we keep the patient laughing and joking. The distance between the patient and their home is smaller.”
Jestina’s counselling is not restricted to the patients. She extends her support to callers over the phone offering reassurance to them as well. When patients are about to be discharged, she works with other psychosocial assistance volunteers to prepare the community for the patient’s return. “We explain to the community that the person no longer has Ebola, they are not dangerous. We work with community leaders to make sure the patients are accepted back and are not stigmatized.”
Stigmatization is something Jestina has experienced herself. “I have had to move three times in Kenema. Once, when my landlord found out that I worked at the centre, he told me to leave that day. I tried to explain that I do not handle the patients, but he would not listen. If a patient suffers stigmatization, I will phone the person who is doing it, to make them understand they shouldn’t.”
Working with ostracized people is nothing new to Jestina. “I used to work with child soldiers, people who no one wanted to work with. I’m a nurse by profession and I care for people. That includes Ebola patients.”
Keeping people motivated can carry its own toll as it is a very emotionally charged job. Jestina is a creative person and links her passion for caring with singing and dance which instantly uplifts her and those around her. “I sing to keep myself happy, it’s what I have to do when I see so many people dying. I see that my work has helped people, more are walking out of this centre Ebola-free.
“Treatment is only part of survival. It makes the body strong but with a weak mind, the person won’t survive. Now, when I make the mind strong, the body becomes stronger and people survive.”