Bong County, LIBERIA—It was Christmas Eve in Bong, and as the hot, red sun dipped behind our blue-tarped Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU), staff began suiting up in protective gear. But these suits weren’t the classic yellow or white that we’ve grown so accustomed to. One had been painted red, and two, green.
“I have this idea,” said Paul our logistician from Florida. “I’ve got some Santa hats and some spray paint.”
“As soon as he said ‘Santa hats,’ I knew what he meant,” said Eoin. Eoin, from Ireland, is the psychosocial manager for International Medical Corps’ operations in Bong County and his team’s mission is (in a nutshell) to support patients: console them, talk to them, cheer them up. Most days, it’s chatting and tea and lollipops. Tonight: Santa.
Santa was accompanied by two elves and Frosty the Snowman. Playing the lead role of Santa, Paul puffed up his red suit with inflated plastic bags to make a belly. Joshua, our WASH engineer from Scotland, was Frosty. His costume required our classic white suit complete with a handcrafted carrot nose and top hat. Eoin and Amaia, a nurse from Spain, donned green suits and played two of Santa’s elves. With a high-risk-safe bag of treats and gifts for patients slung over Santa’s shoulder, the jolly quartet entered the ward.
“In Liberia we have Santa with a big drum, and we sing and dance, but I have never seen anything like this!” said psychosocial nurse, Garmai, who was watching.
The Christmas crew handed out candy, sodas, brightly patterned cloths called lappas, and of course toys to the patients. Two girls, ages 11 and 15, who had been having a rough time went from ornery to enthusiastic as soon as the crew walked into their sitting space outside the ward. One patient, around 35-weeks pregnant, had been feeling depressed most of her time at the ETU, but her face lit up as she was handed the small toys.
“They loved the gifts, especially the lappas. And they all wanted pictures with Santa,” said Amaia.
“Everyone started singing carols. That was the best part,” said Eoin. “They were all smiling as we were singing with them, even if they didn’t know the words.”
Lit by glistening lights that reflected off the tinsel hung all around the ETU, patients and staff sang song after song.
“I think this is one of the many reasons why this ETU is great. We always pull out something new, something interesting that people haven’t thought of,” said Garmai, who is from Liberia. Our nightly movie screenings had been Christmas-themed the past week, but this took Christmas to a whole new level.
“If people in the community think that we are just confining their people here, they will feel good when they hear about this celebration,” Garmai continues. “We can show them pictures and maybe it will change their minds. They will see we are people who really care about them, not just as patients, but as human beings.”