In Anne’s words …
What inspires me: Seeing everyday people having the courage and belief in themselves to work for a kinder world.
Best advice: Have the courage to be kind.
Western Australian Australian of the Year Anne Carey will never forget her first day in the Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone. She was cradling an Ebola-affected baby in her arms. She gazed through the protective mask covering her face into the baby’s eyes. And she watched the baby bleed to death while she held him. The virus had ravaged the infant’s insides causing him to haemorrhage. Horrified, Anne looked up at the baby’s mother. The mother had now lost all seven of her children to the virus. Almost cruelly, the mother survived.
From that moment Anne changed. For Anne knew this family was far from alone. The virus was racing through West Africa. Thousands were dying horrific deaths. The makeshift cemetery by the treatment centre was ever-swelling with newly dead. Anne’s life was no longer about her. It was about fighting to beat a disease that could inflict such devastation, a disease that would go on to infect more than 28,000 people in West Africa and kill more than 11,500.
Looking for an out
The Kenema Ebola Treatment Centre, about a five-hour drive from the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown, was a far cry from Anne’s country Western Australian home. Anne was a nurse in Esperance – a remote and tiny township embraced by stunningly beautiful coast. But she’d come to fear her hospital workplace.
Incessant workplace bullying had broken out over a coroner’s inquiry into the death of an elderly man in the hospital’s care. Though Anne hadn’t been involved in the man’s care, she was somehow caught up in a tangle of finger-pointing, belittling and bullying that left her scared to go to work. She filed a grievance case for workplace bullying with the WA Country Health Service, which an independent investigator upheld. But the decision was a long time coming, so she took leave while the bureaucrats considered the case.
Ebola – a world problem
Meanwhile, across a great swath of Indian Ocean, the horrors of the Ebola virus were playing out. The Red Cross was desperate for workers to help stem the tide of death rolling across West Africa. Having already volunteered as a nurse in Papua New Guinea and as an aid worker in Sudan, and killing time while the grievance case was considered, Anne decided to put up her hand to help.
Unlike others, she didn’t see Ebola as an African problem – it was a world problem. “To me this was just a response to an impoverished, war-torn people facing an uneven battle with a disease they were fairly powerless to contain,” Anne says. “Not to respond would be like not going to the aid of a victim being beaten up in the school yard.” She couldn’t understand how others didn’t see it that way.
And yet she was realistic. She and her partner, doctor Donald Howarth, knew there was a chance Anne would not return. But if people like Anne – people with the skills to help – let fear stop them, what hope was there of overcoming Ebola’s perils? Anne would do what she could to help.
“Not to respond would be like not going to the aid of a victim being beaten up in the school yard.”
Anne flew to Melbourne for a Red Cross debriefing where she learned that, at that time, if she did contract Ebola, the Australian government would not intervene. There would be no option of coming home for treatment. But, after a few days in Geneva learning how to fight the virus, Anne felt better about going. She knew anyone who was infected had three days before they became contagious. And, with early intervention, the survival rate was much higher.
But in Africa, where such information was not common knowledge, it was taking days for patients to seek treatment. They were scared to approach treatment centres staffed by medical staff who looked robot-like in their bulky white protective suits. And by then it was too late. By then they’d infected their loved ones, by then they’d missed their chance for lifesaving treatment. At this stage the death rate was around 80 per cent.
Daily duties in death zone
Anne entered into this whirling mass of death and confusion in December 2014. While reeling from the horrors, she somehow fell into the daily routine of treating its sufferers. Those presenting at the centre were divided – suspected infections this way, probable this way, and confirmed over there.
Under tin roofs and canvas walls, Anne and the team would do what they could to save lives. First, they’d dress in layer upon layer of protective clothing until not an inch of their flesh remained exposed. They’d scrawl their names across the top of their protective eye masks so they could be identified under the body-concealing outfits. While the protective gear did the job of safeguarding its wearers from Ebola, it ran the risk of harming them through heat. The temperature would soar to 46 degrees inside the suits, worn in nearly 100 percent humidity. So health workers were restricted to dealing with patients for one-hour stints four times a day.
Each time she came out of the high-risk area Anne would begin the task of undressing – peeling off layer by layer, and being sprayed with chlorine with every layer removed. Everything she wore would be contaminated with Ebola. So a mistake here could have fatal consequences.
Comforting the dying
While in the high-risk area Anne would treat patients with intravenous and oral fluids. She’d provide medication and clean up diarrhoea and vomit. She’d also try, as much as possible, to simply sit with the dying. “You could pick some people who were dying and get to them to sit with them and just hold their hand,” Anne says. “But there were others who’d be sitting up eating and talking and then an hour later they were dead. I always felt that was the hardest – not being there for those people.”
There were some cases that Anne took harder than others. Like the baby who died on Anne’s first day at the treatment centre. Or the 16 year old boy who came in with his mother, grandmother and brother – his father was already dead. The boy was terrified, his big brown eyes awash with fear. So Anne sat with him, she attempted to calm to, she urged him to be strong. He died the next day. His brother died the day after. The boy’s mother and grandmother survived.
Return to fear
After a month of such work Anne had reached the end of her stay – it was deemed too much to expect health workers to cope with such trauma for longer. But for Anne the trauma was just beginning. For Anne returned to Western Australia to face some sadly ill-informed criticism from a public scared of contracting the virus. She remained holed up in an apartment on the outskirts of Perth for 21 days with no one but her partner Donald in physical contact, testing her temperature twice a day, ever on the alert for symptoms, and safe in the knowledge that, even if she had contracted Ebola, she had three days to get herself to treatment and quarantine before it became contagious.
But the general public didn’t know about the three-day period. They didn’t realise she’d have the chance to isolate herself should even the mildest of symptoms appear. People were scared, and with fear came cruelty. Nasty comments spewed forth on social media, and left Anne terribly saddened. “It was horrible,” she recalls. “It was a massive thing that was so uncalled for. I found that really sad.”
The criticism she’d returned to seemed particularly petty when compared to the devastation she’d witnessed in Africa. So Anne made up her mind. She’d return. The Red Cross was cautious about accepting someone back – surely it would be too traumatic. But Anne countered that the bigger trauma was dealing with the backlash she’d faced at home.
With another Ebola outbreak having unleashed its fury closer to the Ebola treatment centre where Anne had worked, they were desperate for staff. The death rate was escalating once more. So Anne returned to the fight.
With another Ebola outbreak having unleashed its fury closer to the Ebola treatment centre … they were desperate for staff.
From villain to heroine
Anne remained three months this time, with a week break in the midst of it. Eventually, as education about Ebola spread through the country, the health workers began to earn the upper hand. People started presenting earlier with symptoms. They learned how to prevent the virus’s spread. And slowly they moved into the recovery phase.
By March Anne was due to come home. But this time she returned via Europe, where a more informed public and health system meant she faced none of the experiences of her previous return. And by now the Australian media had picked up Anne’s story. She was being lauded a heroine rather than a public risk. How quickly perceptions changed.
Courage to be kind
Having seen Ebola dealt with, Anne returned home with a renewed determination to fight two new bullies – that seen in the workplace, especially the healthcare system, and that presented to refugees seeking asylum on Australian shores. She came to realise that she could fight workplace bullying and discrimination towards refuges with the same weapon used to fight Ebola – kindness. And she determined to use the platform of WA Australian of the Year to urge Australians to have the courage to be kind.
“Ebola was dealt with by individuals who had the courage to be kind to those in need, despite physical and psychological risks to themselves,” Anne says. “Changing the culture of bullying in the workforce will require the courage of many and the need to introduce a kinder culture to the workplace.”
Anne likens the fear surrounding refugees to that she faced on her return from Africa – a fear borne from misinformation, from the unknown. “The politicians are very good at scaring everyone about refugees – and when people get scared they don’t reach for the truth,” she says. “I don’t understand why so many Australians see refugees as criminals instead of people running away from horrible things. I call on Australia to stand up to bullies, to have the courage to stand with people who are being bullied and in doing that we will become a kinder nation. For me Ebola was just another bully that needed to be dealt with. In the end the courage to act conquered Ebola, and likewise courage to act can transform this great nation.”
“… courage to act can transform this great nation.”
Get involved …
Anne is fundraising to supply computer equipment to the local healthcare workers who risked their lives fighting Ebola. Anne says these people are the true heroes of the Ebola crisis. You can contribute to the campaign here: