Dr. Lauralee Morris has gone overseas to help refugees in South Sudan and typhoon survivors in the Philippines. But the international mission she took in late August, her ninth, was unlike any other. She travelled to Sierra Leone to help fight Ebola at the International Federation of the Red Cross's Kenema Ebola Treatment Centre, a new 60-bed facility that she helped get up and running. Morris faced more fear, more death and more risk – risk that continued even when she returned home to Canada to wait for the virus's 21-day incubation period to pass.
When it came time to head out, was there any part of you that viewed this mission differently from your previous ones?
The fear factor was higher. Every mission has different types of risks. In South Sudan there were a lot of guns, a lot of gunshot wounds – something could happen that way. I've been in missions where there were threats of kidnapping. This one felt more … the fear was greater.
What made this one different?
The fear of getting Ebola. There's so much interest here in North America, there's so much media about it, and there's quite frankly a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of misinformation about it as well. I've never been on a mission that the rest of the world was so interested in. The other thing was, my husband, he was not too comfortable with me going – he was fearful for me.
Do you remember your first patient?
I remember the first patient quite well because she's actually become a very famous patient. The first three patients who came in were an 11-year-old girl and two men in their 30s. One of those men died, one of them lived and the 11-year-old girl lived. Usually with Ebola, if they survive two weeks then their odds of surviving are very great. People are often free of the virus after two weeks. I was there for another two weeks so I got to see this young girl – her name is Kadiatu – be discharged.
What was the most difficult thing about treating patients there?
Working in the [personal protective equipment]. It's just the extreme heat. The PPE doesn't breathe. It's very hot and it's very sweaty. When you come out, your hair is soaked. You look like you've been in the shower. If you stay in it too long it can be quite dangerous because you can have heat stroke and heat exhaustion. The other big problem is it limits the amount of time you can spend with patients. It limits the contact. For instance, a regular patient, you take their pulse, you take their blood pressure, you listen to their chest, you touch their hand. All of that, you cannot do. [The other difficult thing] was seeing so many people die. You see the impact those deaths have on families, families where parents die and children have nowhere to go. They may have survived Ebola but nobody wants [the children] because they're afraid of them.
Were there any patients who stuck out in your mind?
There was one little girl. She was about nine and she was there with her brother. She kind of wandered out of her tent and she went to another tent where there was one adult woman. She wanted to be close to this woman. She wanted to sleep curled up with her. I thought that was extremely sad because I imagine she was trying to find someone similar to her mother, someone she could get some comfort from. This woman, who was also sick with Ebola, really didn't want to be taking care of this little girl. That little girl did eventually die. People with Ebola, they often die alone. They're not surrounded by their loved ones. They go to a strange hospital, they get admitted to a tent where they may not know anyone and this is the way they spend their last days.
How do you decompress after a mission like this?
On my other missions, when I got home my risk had essentially ended. You may possibly get malaria after you leave a country, but it's just malaria. After you've dealt with Ebola, malaria doesn't look too dangerous. When I was there, there was a French [Médecins sans frontières] nurse who had gotten Ebola. Then, just as I was coming back, there was a Norwegian doctor who had gotten Ebola and then, of course, there was [American doctor] Craig Spencer. These are all people who've had the same training as me. Even though I felt really confident I wasn't going to get sick, it started to work on my mind. They got it. How did they get it? The doubts do start to creep in.
There's this funny thing that happens with me and I don't know what it means. I never dream about a mission when I'm on mission. But I dream about it for weeks and weeks afterward. They're not bad dreams, certainly not frightening dreams. I think it's part of when you're learning something new, it takes some time for your subconscious to file away the memories and the experience. I was waking up and the Ebola mission would be on my mind.
This has been edited and condensed from two interviews.