From Ebola Isolation Unit to Modern A&E Unit: Transformation at Connaught Hospital

KSLP Emergency Medicine Doctor Rich shares his reflections on the recent A&E refurbishment at Connaught Hospital

The entrance doors were unlocked, revealing dark corridors and empty rooms illuminated only by slivers of sunlight stretching out across the bare floor through broken panes of glass.  My eyes struggle to adjust, pupils dilating as I peer into the shadows. It’s humid and I can already feel beads of perspiration forming at the back of my neck.  The tiles have faded after repeated dousing in chlorine and a fine layer of dust has settled to give the ward an eerie, long-abandoned feel.  This was once part of the red zone, a place of fear and tragedy for many, a place where local staff worked alongside foreigners doing the best they could in a period of great uncertainty.  It is now silent, no one has been here for quite some time.

By the time the epidemic reached Freetown, hundreds of cases a day were being diagnosed across the country and the staff at Connaught needed to act fast to establish an Ebola isolation unit in an attempt to contain the virus and protect its healthcare workers.  Prior to the epidemic King’s had a program in place to help strengthen the emergency services at the hospital and had already introduced a triage system to expedite assessment of the sicker patients that presented to the hospital.   The outpatient department was re-branded as the Accident and Emergency unit to re-inforce the need for timely and effective urgent care for the critically ill and injured patients that attend there on a frequent basis.  An emergency that no one expected subsequently swept across the country at alarming speed and the Accident and Emergency ward was transformed into an Ebola holding unit.

In time, a purpose designed isolation unit was established alongside the hospital and the old unit, after decontamination, became redundant and stood empty; a dark reminder of painful recent events.  When I arrived, just over six months ago, we were isolating and managing suspect patients in the new unit.  I had heard some very upsetting accounts from colleagues, from both Freetown and abroad, that were around at the height of the epidemic and I struggled to imagine how challenging the conditions must have been. Before Christmas, it was opened up and I was able to enter inside.  Renovation work would soon be starting on a new A&E Department and I was curious to see what would be required to transform a place where the grief was still tangible into a facility that will aim to revolutionise emergency care for inhabitants of the city and beyond.

Dr Rich working on the A&E refurbishment at Connaught Hospital

During the epidemic, the emphasis of the government and international agencies was focused out of necessity in containing the disease.  This was no doubt to the detriment of other health related issues.  Maternal and child mortality rates will have increased, surgery throughout the country was suspended and I have seen many HIV and TB patients that defaulted on treatment.  Most health facilities shut down but Connaught remained open, providing a much needed service to those that were sick but not suffering from Ebola.  The A&E, in its temporary facility, continued to deliver essential care at the front door, at great personal risk to the brave staff that served throughout.

We have seen the country declared free of Ebola twice now since I arrived and with recent cases in Guinea, it seems unlikely that the country will never see another case.  The skill and expertise now exists in Sierra Leone to manage the situation and gain control rapidly, the focus is now on re-building and strengthening the health care system.  This is now the main emphasis of the work of King’s at Connaught and of my role in the Emergency Department.  The lasts few months have seen huge steps forward in the delivery of emergency care and much of the credit should be given to my colleague Ling who has worked tirelessly over several years now to develop the A&E in conjunction with the hospital staff and Ministry of Health.

Before: the future A&E unit pre-refurbishment
After: Dr. Ling stands in the newly refurbished A&E unit

The end of February saw work complete on the old isolation unit and the new A&E, along with resus and medical admissions units opened to patients. Equipment and patients were transferred seamlessly, coordinated by Sister Kamara, in under 2 hours and there was impressively no delay or impact on patient care and safety. Several of the staff came in early of their own volition to prepare the department and I was told off for being late by one irate nurse who had been there since 6am.

Ling is now back in the UK and is sorely missed by all the staff she worked with at Connaught, although she has left a strong legacy.  Several high profile figures have visited the department in the last few weeks including the deputy health minister, chief medical officer and chief nurse; all have been impressed.  The staff are revitalised and proud of their new department, they are eager to learn how to use the new facilities and equipment.  We have a new enthusiastic and motivated medical officer and Emergency medicine is enjoying a raised profile in Sierra Leone currently.  I’m sure that this is all having a positive impact on the care of the patients, who seem to be attending in ever increasing numbers. The big challenge now will be to sustain and build on this momentum and ensure that the ministry can support the hospital to develop systems and maintain a supply chain that will keep the acute care facilities functioning effectively for the benefit of the patients.

A lot has taken place over six months and a great deal more is to come. While work has the potential to become all-consuming at times, it is the down-time and the support of those who are close that is important to maintain a sense of balance and perspective. My personal highlight has been the visit of Alice, who arrived in Freetown last month as my girlfriend and went home as my fiancée. I was really pleased to be able to share my experiences and show her the highlights of what can be, at times, a beautiful country. In a place that offers tropical islands and idyllic beaches in abundance, I felt the most appropriate spot for a proposal would be in the jungle surrounded by howling chimpanzees. Fortunately, my gamble paid off and she agreed to marry me!