“I Left My Baby Behind To Help With The Ebola Crisis In Liberia”
March 2, 2015
She had to leave her own child at home but Raissa Azzalini felt she could do something to help other babies, left to die alone because their mothers had ebola
It was almost time for her flight to west Africa, but aid worker Raissa Azzalini still had one task left. She sat down with her baby, Anton, and, for the last time, gave him a breastfeed. "The bags were packed and my mind was already racing with everything that was ahead," she says. "But I knew this was an important moment for both of us. We weren't going to see one another for a while, and, when we did, breastfeeding would be over."
Raissa, 43, had just returned to her job at Oxfam after a year's maternity leave when her manager asked whether she might be prepared to go to Liberia, which was struggling with the scale of the ebola epidemic there.
"My work is in public health promotion; it's about involving the local community and making sure that what we're doing as an aid agency is completely understood by them and is acceptable to them, and that they can work with us and that we can support one another," she says.
"I knew I could make a difference, because I worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the ebola outbreak in 2007, so I didn't need extra training and could just fly out and slot in. But I had to think very seriously about whether, as the mother of a young baby, I could leave him to go there."
It was a tough decision. "One thing that helped me decide was hearing the stories about the way mothers and their babies in Liberia were affected by the disease. When you have a baby, you touch and hold your child the whole time, but the first thing you have to do if you think you might have ebola is stop touching. So if a mother gets ebola, what happens to her child?
"There were stories about babies being left to cry, left even to die, because their mothers were dead and no one else would touch them in case they were infectious. Those cut to my heart. What if this was me? What if that baby was Anton? And so it was pretty clear to me that, if there was something I could do to help, I should do it."
The risk to her own health, Raissa knew, would be minimal – but it took her a while to convince some of her family that it was right for her to go. "It took me a long time to persuade my mother. She was saying, 'You'll be working in the community and although you're not a medic and so won't be on the frontline, that also means you won't have any protection.' So she thought it was more scary because if I met someone who was infected, I wouldn't be wearing protective clothing and might be at more risk."
Raissa's husband, Ewan Chainey, 52, who has worked in development for many years, found it easier to accept that his wife's experience meant she should go – but was worried about how he would cope looking after a baby who wasn't yet weaned. "We decided Ewan would take him to Scotland to stay with his family while I was away, so they'd be doing something different, which might distract from the fact that I wasn't there."
That was important because the dates of Raissa's trip, last October, coincided with Anton's first birthday. "I knew it was going to be very tough to be away from him for that, but I also knew that it would be harder to leave an older child who'd be aware of it all," she says. "I bought his presents and left them with Ewan, and I knew I'd be thinking about them such a lot on that day, from thousands of miles away."
In Liberia, Raissa was immediately plunged into the horror of the ebola outbreak. "It was all anyone was talking about – every newspaper, every TV show – and it dominated everything," she says. "Everyone was frightened, everyone was acutely aware of the dangers. It seemed so strange to go to meetings and to see people and be unable to hug them or to even shake hands – but that's how you have to live in a country with an ebola outbreak," she says.
For someone who had spent the last year caring for a baby, the sudden lack of physical contact was difficult to cope with. "When you're the mother of a young child, physical contact with someone else is so much part of your life that it seemed especially strange to be in this situation where I couldn't touch anyone. There were times when I missed Anton, I longed to hold him again."
Raissa had taken photographs of her son with her, and many of the people she met – other aid workers and people in the local community – asked her about her child. "Everyone asks whether you are married. They want to know what kind of life you have, and then when you say you have a husband they say, do you have any children? When I said I had a baby, people were interested in seeing his picture and wanted to hear all about him."
Her colleagues, she says, were determined to mark Anton's birthday in a positive way. "They said, we should have a party here to celebrate. But in the end, we were all so tired at the end of another exhausting day that we just fell asleep."
Seeing how useful her skills were in Liberia, Raissa extended her stay before flying home to France, where she is from. Ewan brought Anton to Paris to meet her. "It was wonderful to see him again – I thought he'd grown a lot," she says.
People asked if she was going to wait 21 days, the maximum incubation period for the ebola virus, before she was back in touch with Anton. "But I didn't. I knew I was unlikely to have contracted the disease, but all the same I monitored myself very carefully for symptoms. And I was fine."
She has no regrets about going to Africa and her hope is simply that her work in Liberia made a difference to the community there.
Source: By Mary Smith - The Guardian