Beating ebola in Africa with my neighbour

A brave mum travelled thousands of miles to help with the ebola crisis is Africa – only to bump into her neighbour doing the same.

Kirstin Shand and Robyn Haughian were open-mouthed when they were introduced to each other in a Sierra Leone treatment centre and discovered they lived on estates next door to each other.

The pair returned this week after a gruelling five-week stint of diagnosing patients – and Kirstin revealed just how narrowly they escaped catching the deadly disease.

“As we were leaving for home a patient escaped from a quarantine centre in Freetown and travelled for three hours to Makeni, where we were based. Almost immediately he infected 30 people and the whole town was in meltdown,” she said.

The patient himself died, along with members of his family and the local faith healer who he had approached for help.

“Another couple of days and we could have been infected too,” said Kirstin, who is 56.

The mother of two grown up sons, she works as in laboratory research at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and lives on Shenley Lodge. Robyn, 23, works at Chelmsford Hospital.

The pair volunteered to take their skills to Africa via the International Medical Corps and went through stringent training before they travelled.

But even that did not prepare them for the horrors they saw.

“Some patients were brought in by ambulance but many just walked in. They made it just as far as the fence and died,” said Kirstin.

She and Robyn worked in the laboratory, analysing samples from patients.

“We actually found malaria was more prevalent than ebola, but it was often the combination of the two diseases that proved fatal,” she said.

Despite crippling shortages, staff managed to save many lives through hydration and careful nursing.

Said Kirstin, who has spent two years previously volunteering in Ghana: “I was pleased to be able to help. There was no way I could have stood back and not done my bit to help this crisis.”

“When I first announced I was going to volunteer my youngest son asked if I had a death wish. But I think he understood why I had to go.”