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A lovely article in today’s Yorkshire Post:

Meet the Harrogate nurse who worked in the Ebola crisis and is now on the frontline of Covid-19

NHS intensive care nurse Andy Dennis worked on the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014. Now he’s on the frontline of the Covid-19 outbreak at Harrogate Hospital. Laura Reid reports.

Monday, 15th June 2020, 4:50 pm

Andy Dennis, an intensive care nurse from Harrogate. Photo: Ernesto Rogata

Andy Dennis, an intensive care nurse from Harrogate. Photo: Ernesto Rogata

At 3am on December 30, 2014, Andy Dennis received the signal from an ambulance crew to leave his Harrogate home and meet a paramedic dressed in full PPE. As a suspected Ebola case, he was escorted to the infectious diseases ward at St James’s Hospital in Leeds.

Andy had recently returned from an Ebola Management Centre in Sierra Leone, caring for those who had contracted one of the world’s deadliest diseases. On a 21-day monitoring period back in the UK, a rise in his temperature and general feeling of unwellness had sent alarm bells ringing – and a medical action plan had been put into place.

“It was quite a dramatic experience because they sent two ambulances and two police cars to transport me,” he reflects. “It was quite interesting really when I thought about how people were transported in Sierra Leone – I was treated like a king basically (in comparison) and it made me contemplate how the people out there were treated. It was nowhere near what I had, we’re very lucky.”

Andy whilst working during the Ebola outbreak.

Andy whilst working during the Ebola outbreak.

Thankfully, test results showed that Andy was suffering from a common winter bug, but it was a worrying experience, for Ebola can kill up to 90 per cent of people who catch it.

Now, Andy, 53, is on the frontline of another outbreak, this time working 4,500 miles away from West Africa. For the past two months, he’s been in post as an intensive care nurse in Harrogate.

“This is my third time in an outbreak but my first time in one in the UK,” he says. “It’s almost surreal to be thinking I’m involved in one that isn’t in sub-Saharan Africa because that’s where my experience is.”

Andy’s previous experience abroad has helped him to adapt to working on the frontline at home during the global pandemic. He was placed in the Ebola centre through a mission with humanitarian medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). With the same charity, he also offered support during a cholera outbreak in South Sudan in 2008.

“I’ve probably been in a better position going into this (Covid-19 outbreak) than other people,” he suggests. “Because I’ve been in outbreaks before, my mindset drops into them easier. It was virtually instant of we’ve got an outbreak, I know what it’s like to be in that, I’m okay with that, let’s just work. 

“A lot of my colleagues have had to go through the things I went through a few years ago. They’re frightened understandably, as I was in the past, for their own health and will they take anything home to their families?

“All the things that anybody thinks in society, we’ve got that but magnified in healthcare because we’re in and amongst people who come to us when they’re sick…Locally, how [the coronavirus outbreak] has been responded to, I think Harrogate Hospital has done very well.”

Andy’s medical career began at the hospital in the 1980s, when he worked in the X-ray department after leaving school. Seeking opportunities to travel, he then joined the RAF in 1985, staying with the service as a medical assistant for the next six years.

Come 1988, he was posted to a station in the German capital, witnessing the fall of the Berlin wall the following year. “In November 1989, as things collapsed across the Iron Curtain through Poland, Hungary and then eventually into East Germany, we could see which way the wind was blowing.

“It was quite fascinating to see how the German regime tried to hold onto power and tried suddenly to make concessions to people after years of oppression. It was an incredible sight to see, to be down at the Brandenburg gate on the night when people basically said no we don’t want concessions, we want absolute parity with the West – and claimed it.

“It was wonderful really. It was one of the early real highlights of my life, being in Berlin at that time.”

With his next posting, came Andy’s first experience of conflict. In 1990, he was assigned to a helicopter squadron in the Gulf, after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, prompting the events of the first Gulf War. Their job was to pick up casualties and fly them to field hospitals for advanced care.

“It was distressing,” he says. “I remember being in a Puma flying near Kuwait city and the air was black. There were oil wells on fire and it just made day into night. It was horrendous.” 

Andy decided then that going into conflict in service was to be a “once only” experience and he left the forces shortly afterwards. In 1992, he trained as a nurse at university in Newcastle, taking up his first qualified post in the emergency department at Leeds General Infirmary three years later, before then joining A&E at Harrogate in the year 2000.

“A&E is an incredible area to work in. You see the most ludicrous attendances and the most severely injured and sick people there are….We built up a remarkable team spirit at Harrogate and that gets you through because it can be very difficult. 

“One of the examples I give is that you might find yourself in a room with a paediatric resuscitation that doesn’t work out how you’d like it to, a baby dies and then an hour later, you’ve got to walk into the waiting room and have somebody complain at you because they’ve waited too long to have someone look at their finger injury.

“You’ve got to stop yourself from saying you have no idea what I’ve been dealing with and say I’m very sorry for your wait, I’ll have a look at it now.”

Andy’s time in Leeds and Harrogate was interspersed with international travel. A trip to India in 1997 was particularly poignant, as he witnessed huge swathes of the population living in dire poverty.

“To actually see and take note of it instead of just walking through it on the way to another tourist site is really important,” he reflects. “I think it had quite a profound effect on me really. I came back from India thinking I want to be involved somehow with people [in need], doing something to try and help the situation.”

That desire was apparent once again in 2004 when Andy watched on television as the devastating tsunami struck communities around the Indian Ocean. “It was a huge catastrophe that people were moved by all over the world and it really jolted me. I watched what happened and saw how these various agencies went in to help.”

One in particular that stood out was MSF – and by June 2005, Andy was away on his first mission, travelling to Uganda after undertaking a three-month tropical medicine course in Liverpool. He worked providing medical care to citizens who were living in camps after being displaced by the activities of rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army.

“The LRA would take property, medicines and food and one of the most awful things they did is they would take children,” Andy recalls. “They forced them to commit atrocities in their communities such as killing their parents, or their siblings or their neighbours under threat of death themselves. Then the children would be taken by the LRA and forced into a life of being child soldiers.”

In the years that followed, Andy spent time with the NHS both in St James’s in Leeds and in intensive care at Harrogate, as well as working for eight months as a nursing officer on passengers liners.

He completed a second MSF mission in 2008, heading to South Sudan to support the setting up of healthcare clinics, and returned to the country on another assignment five years later, this time working on a nutrition programme.

By the time of the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, he was working in endoscopy at Harrogate. His bosses agreed to give him leave to work in the outbreak with MSF and he left for a month in Kailahun in Sierra Leone in November that year.

“That was probably the most emotionally testing and traumatic thing I’ve ever done, because it hit a lot of people right across the spectrum of ages,” he says. “We had elderly people, we had babies in there (the Ebola Management Centre). We lost a lot of people as well.”

The experience was one punctuated by tragedy and he speaks sadly still today of a two-year-old girl who lost her battle with the disease. Her story and the countless harrowing tales of suffering from many others sparked his desire to document working in the crisis – and his book ‘Ebola – Behind the Mask’, written with a fellow Ebola Management Centre worker named Anna Simon, was published in 2016.

“It was concerning,” he reflects of his time working through the outbreak. “On a personal level, it was concerning because we knew we were dealing with a very, very serious disease. If you got it, the chances were you were going to die. 

“It was kind of the polar opposite to coronavirus in many ways because if you get the coronavirus, the chances are you’re going to be fine. The majority of people are going to have very mild symptoms.

“However, we were trained very, very carefully by MSF…It was a really slick operation….MSF look after their people so their people can look after the patients. I felt pretty safe because I was confident in the protocols we had.”

Back on the coronavirus frontline and Andy says the intensive care unit has “quietened down”. “It’s been a very strange period. When I first went back there about two months ago (he was redeployed from endoscopy), it was really busy, really busy. The unit was full and the staff were pushed, but managing…It’s now gone from being super busy in that early stage to being eerily quiet at the moment.”

It’s seemingly a positive step in the right direction and it is to be hoped that the trajectory continues that way. For Andy, like many other healthcare workers, has seen first-hand how devastating the virus can be.

“For all these people who are saying you don’t have to do this or that or are breaching the guidelines, until you’ve sat with somebody who’s died of this disease and sat with their family as they’ve seen a loved one deteriorate, you really can’t fully grasp just how significant and dreadful it is,” Andy says.

“I wouldn’t wish that experience on anybody. People should realise how lucky they are that they have people like my colleagues who offer a hand to hold when people are losing the most precious thing they have.”

When he’s not on a mission with MSF, Andy supports the organisation by fundraising and hopes to raise £200,000. His first charitable challenge saw him walk a route taking in the operational centres of MSF in Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Geneva and Barcelona in 2011.

In 2016, he and girlfriend Tracey Hill embarked on a 4,000-mile cycle ride from San Francisco to New York. And next year, the pair are planning to do a second mammoth bike ride, this time from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. 

Andy says his NHS bosses have been “kind, flexible and accommodating” to allow him to undertake MSF missions and his fundraising activities. He has already raised £107,000. To donate, visit www.andy4msf.com

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