Preparing to take a mandatory Rest & Relaxation (R&R) over the weekend in Freetown, I am in my room in the dorm packing. I tie up my mosquito net, and upend my backpack onto the bed. I discover, in no particular order:
Yellow duct tape.
An empty bag of M&Ms.
Super-sticky tape for securing IVs.
An uneaten bag of M&Ms.
Cough and cold medicine.
The latest W.H.O. guidelines for the treatment and management of viral hemorrhagic illnesses.
A single packet of Gatorade powder, “Glacial Blue.”
One pen, two pencils, one highlighter.
A well-worn and dog-eared notebook.
Seven Band-Aids, battered but intact.
17,000 Leones (approx $3).
A scrap of paper with the number of a man at the market who can make spigot buckets for handwashing.
One tangerine, bruised but edible.
Finally, at the very bottom, I find my room key.
I shove everything back in the backpack except the tangerine, which I peel as we hit the road.
Ten minutes later, I have the driver turn around and go back to the dorm, where I have left my key in the lock of my door. I put the key in my backpack, swing by the ETU, run two errands, and we head to Freetown.
Halfway to town, I try to remember if I actually locked the door before I took the key.
– – –
In Freetown I check into the hotel, turn on the air conditioning, and collapse onto a comfortable mattress. I make plans to have a hot shower, shave my legs, FaceTime with my family, eat dinner at the hotel restaurant, maybe hop in their pool.
I roll over and fall asleep.
I sleep for fourteen straight hours.
– – –
In the middle of the night, I partially wake up and automatically reach above to my head to adjust my mosquito net. Back at the dorm, I usually catch my mosquito net up under my pillows halfway through the night by tossing and turning. I’ve developed the habit of untangling it, mostly in my sleep, so I don’t tear it off the ceiling hooks.
My hands brush against absolutely nothing at all.
Horrified that my net is gone, I wake up fully and sit bolt upright in bed.
It takes a moment for me to figure out where I am. The quiet hum of the air conditioner brings me back to reality.
I turn on the TV and watch Premier League football with the sound down low until I fall asleep again.
– – –
The next day I meet two more nurses for breakfast at the hotel, and we hop in a car and head to the beach.
Technically, we are all on leave. I am on R&R. The second nurse has finished her contract, and is leaving for the United States on a 5 a.m. flight the next day. The third nurse, assigned to a hospital in Freetown, is taking a day off.
Realistically, since we still get cell phone reception, we are all still at work.
My phone rings. It is a nurse at one of my CCCs. “Nurse Martha, we have a patient who is vomiting blood!” He sounds frightened.
“Did you call 117 for an ambulance? Call 117 for an ambulance, and then call me back, all right?” I hang up.
The second nurses’ phone rings. It is the command center from a northern district. “You need to contact whom? Let me give you a different number; after today I will be in the United States, so I’m referring all calls to them.” She rattles off the triage phone number for our ETU, and hangs up.
The third nurses’ phone rings. It’s the lead nurse at the hospital. “How are you? No, I’m not coming in today….what? The baby died. Ah. I’m sorry to hear that. Have you contacted the Surveillance Officer for that district? Can you do that and call me back?” She hangs up.
My phone rings.
– – –
We take a bumpy road for an hour out of Freetown, passing through multiple informal checkpoints as different neighborhoods try to protect themselves from Ebola. At the last one, the ‘guard’ holding the wire asks if we have hand sanitizer.
“Will you use it now, please?”
We glance at each other, and then we all clean our hands with hand sanitizer.
This appeases him. “Thank you, enjoy the beach!” And we are through.
– – –
We park at River Number 2 Beach. We step out of the trees onto a beach with the softest, whitest sand I have ever seen. We drop our bags under a wooden table with a wide umbrella, place our lunch order, and walk into the ‘opposite’ side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The surf is gentle and low, the grade shallow for a hundred yards out. The sun is shining; there are flocks of seabirds taking tiny mincing footsteps on a sandbar to my left. Far out to my right a long and narrow fishing boat is anchored, painted in the colors of the Sierra Leonean flag. I plant my hands on my hips and stare out across the endless ocean as the tide pulls at my ankles.
Homesickness, unexpected and swift as an arrow, pierces my heart.
Home is just there, just beyond the horizon, I think to myself. If I walk into the water and start swimming, and keep swimming for a long, long time, I could climb out of the Atlantic on my own side. I could walk to Michele’s house in Massachusetts, and then to Jeff’s house in Indiana, and then spend a day or two in Wisconsin, and if I just kept walking for a long, long time, I could walk up to my parent’s house and press the doorbell.
And then I could hug them.
And I would hug them for a long, long, long time.
– – –
I am standing in the surf of the most beautiful beach I have ever visited, crying.
And from behind me I suddenly hear the splash-splash-splash of running feet, and the third nurse, raised all her life on the coast of the Atlantic, is dashing past me into her ocean, her arms waving above her head, smiling her beautiful wide smile, hollering out in absolute joy.
“YAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!” she shouts, and dives headfirst into a wave. She surfaces, laughing.
Startled, I double over in hysterical laughter. And then I fling myself into the water, and we are body surfing the waves, letting them crush us and roll us into the sand, turning somersaults, and floating, weightless, in the clear, warm water.
Out just past the point where my toes can touch the bottom, I roll over onto my back and stare up into the blue, blue sky, the faint haze of the harmattan winds, the wispy cotton clouds. I float there, quietly, my ears below the surface of the water, and listen to the quiet, ceaseless pulse of the world.
And, finally, for the first time in six weeks, I rest.