Flight into danger
Picture: Dr Jenny Stedmon on deplotyment with the Red Cross to the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan
It was not getting in to Ebola-struck Sierra Leone that most worried Red Cross medico Jenny Stedmon – it was getting out again.
“I flew in on an Air France flight, and the day after I arrived they stopped flying. All borders were shut,” she recalls. “It was a very volatile situation.”
Dr Stedmon, an emergency physician and anaesthetist, was a member of one of the first medical teams deployed by the Red Cross to Sierra Leone as the scale of the west African outbreak – which would eventually claim more than 11,000 lives – started to become clear in mid-2014.
The Brisbane-based anaesthetist, who has worked as a volunteer for the Red Cross for more than 20 years, was among the first medical specialists the humanitarian organisation contacted as it organised its initial response to the unfolding crisis.
A week after getting the call Dr Stedmon, leaving behind a worried husband, found herself immersed in a medical emergency the like of which she had not encountered before through deployments as far afield as Thailand, Yemen, Sudan, East Timor, Nepal and the Philippines.
Before each deployment, the Red Cross sends their volunteers oodles of information, and ensures they have the supplies and equipment they will need when they arrive.
But because nothing like the Ebola outbreak had been encountered before, Dr Stedmon admits all were going in “a little blind”.
The mission was to set up an Ebola treatment centre on the grounds of one of Sierra Leone’s main hospitals to help cope with the flood of cases arriving on a daily basis.
“Everyone was on a learning curve,” Dr Stedmon remembers. “I had never put on personal protective equipment in my life. There was a lot of fear.”
The Red Cross team learned what they could from World Health Organisation workers who had already been in-country for some time, and did what they could.
As an anaesthetist, Dr Stedmon usually works as part of the surgical team. But in emergency situations such as this, people just pitched in where they could provide the greatest help.
In battling Ebola, she found most of her time spent delivering medicines, water and food to the sick: “This was really basic health care delivery”.
After a month working in such a physically and emotionally demanding environment, Dr Stedmon and her colleagues were due to be rotated out.
But getting out of a country isolated by the international community was always going to be a challenge, and so it proved.
Eventually, she was driven across Sierra Leone to the border with Guinea where a waiting canoe carried her and her suitcase across the river. It was a white-knuckle ride, with the humanitarian worker more than a little alarmed by the strong possibility she might drown.
Once across, she was taken to an airfield at “a little place in the middle of nowhere”. Her fellow travellers included a health worker who was the sole survivor of a team massacred by frightened villagers who believed they were spreading Ebola rather than trying to fight it.
The experience caused Dr Stedmon to reflect that, “You never know where the danger is going to come from.”
Though danger is an inescapable part of working in areas afflicted by war or disaster, Dr Stedmon has never been directly attacked.
“I have been lucky so far,” she said. “I have never actively been involved in a violent act [and] I have never been impeded in my work.”
But she has had some good friends who have not been so lucky.
One of her best friends, New Zealand nurse Sheryl Thayer, was among six Red Cross workers assassinated by gunmen in a brutal attack on a field hospital near Grozny in Chechnya in 1996.
Another friend was seriously injured when a land mine blew up the Red Cross vehicle she was riding in near Fallujah in Iraq.
The Red Cross itself takes the safety and security of its staff and volunteers very seriously, Dr Stedmon said.
During her deployment in 2004 to the Yemen civil war, for example, the organisation took care to make sure the field hospital she worked at was away from the front lines, and even though there was “a lot of shooting going on, none [was] near us”.
Similarly, during the Sudan civil war, Dr Stedmon worked at a field hospital set up right on the border with Kenya, and patients were flown in by plane for care for everything from snake and hyena bites to landmine injuries and gunshot wounds.
Through all these deployments, Dr Stedmon has generally found local people and combatants, from whatever side, have respected the Red Cross’s neutrality.
But she is worried that a shift in attitude seems to be underway that could render Red Cross work ever more hazardous.
“I would never say it’s not dangerous…but I get the feeling there is erosion of respect and knowledge of the symbol [going on],” Dr Stedmon said. “Most people are reasonable, but there appears an increasing number of situations where there is no respect.
“It’s probably getting more dangerous to work for the Red Cross than when I started. That is my gut feeling.”
It is why Dr Stedmon is so passionate in her support for the ICRC’s Health care in Danger project, which aims to highlight attacks on health workers and educate combatants about the need to respect Red Cross neutrality.
“The time has come for the medical profession to stand up and say it’s not acceptable. We should be able to treat people in safety.”
What it is like to volunteer for the Red Cross
Three-day basic training course;
Week-long medical course drawing on expertise in areas like war surgery and emergency medicine.
Detailed briefing notes; vaccinations; medical kits
Duration – typically three months, though in intense disaster response situations one month.
Equipment and supplies – apart from personal belongings, everything else supplied.
Support – extensive network of experienced in-country staff look after travel, accommodation, logistics
Costs – Red Cross covers air fares, food and shelter, and provides a per diem
Work absence – Dr Stedman has the support of her employer, Redlands Hospital, and takes unpaid leave for duration of deployment (gives them some scope to employ a locum if needed).
Post-deployment: extensive debriefing