The British nurse who survived Ebola is back on the front line – and saving lives again

William Pooley is our Champion of 2014

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You made headlines in August when you caught Ebola and were airlifted to London. Did you fear you might not see Christmas?

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Of course I thought there was a possibility I wouldn’t make it, but I didn’t have much time to dwell on it because it was pretty busy and I was a bit sick.

How did you tell your parents, Robin and Jackie, that you were going back to Sierra Leone?

I didn’t need to say anything. They knew while I was in the isolation unit in London that that’s what would happen. They’ve been 100 per cent behind me coming back. I’m sure they would have liked me to be home at Christmas, but equally they understand why that’s not possible. It was obviously quite emotional when I came to leave, on all sides.

Do you see yourself as a hero?

No, I don’t. I’m working with masses of local staff who are risking death. The big problem at the moment is they haven’t been paid for months –which sounds bad enough to English ears, but in Sierra Leone if you’re not getting paid, then you’re facing starvation. But they’re still coming to work. They are the heroes.

How will you be spending Christmas Day?

I’ll get up at 7am and at 7.30am I’ll get a lift, in a car full of other volunteers, to go to work at the Connaught Hospital in Freetown. In the evening after my shift is over, I’m sure all the staff will get together and find somewhere nice to eat and have a few beers.

What do you want for Christmas?

It’s hard to receive parcels here. My parents have been hassling me to find out how that might be done. One thing I like is nice coffee, so I think that’s what my mum’s trying to send me. But, otherwise, there’s nothing I need. I don’t have a lot of possessions – they were all incinerated after I caught Ebola. You don’t really need much, providing you have the basics. 

What’s the situation on the ground where you are?

In terms of the number of people presenting with the disease, it’s been a bit disappointing – there are still people outside the front of the hospital dying of Ebola because there aren’t enough beds for them. I had hoped that by now that would have been over.

Now the money is coming in, has it made any difference?

Yes – though things filter through at a glacial pace. Governments pledged money months ago…I don’t know whether it’s working. I’m sure it’s better to donate than not, but it’s just a shame it gets tied up in lots of bureaucracy.

Have you heard the Band Aid Thirty single?

On the way into work I heard the first half of it. It’s definitely being talked about here among my colleagues. But stuff about “Do they know it’s Christmas” – it’s just like, actually people live normal lives here and do normal things. It’s Africa, not another planet. That sort of cultural ignorance is a bit cringeworthy. There’s a lyric about “death in every tear”. It’s just a bit much.

What’s your message to people back home?

I wouldn’t blame them for not being very interested, but if they do have an interest, I would say that it’s a good idea to read as much as you can about what’s going on in West Africa, and if you feel so inclined then donate some money to one of the charities, like King’s, that are working out here, directly caring for Ebola patients. 

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William Pooley is volunteering with the King’s Sierra Leone Partnership. Donate at kslp.org.uk/donate or to give £10, text FightEbola to 70111