Rossland nurse reflects on her fight against Ebola outbreak, earthquake in Nepal

“The refugee situation has been building for years, but a tipping point was hit, and now everyone is talking and thinking about it.”

As the Trail Times reflects back on 2015, Rossland native Patrice Gordon’s remarkable story stands out. Gordon is the kind of person that gives hope that there are still good people in this world. The nurse practitioner’s selfless work led her to helping the Nepalese pick up life after a tremor devastated their country, months after fighting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Gordon’s heart still aches when she thinks about the needs changing, about the colder weather moving in on the people still living in make-shift shelters in Nepal. She gets choked up when she reads her red book and the notes made during her time in West Africa. She hasn’t forgotten the people though her focus is shifting with the rest of the country to millions of Syrian refugees displaced by violent conflict in their home country.

“The refugee situation has been building for years, but a tipping point was hit, and now everyone is talking and thinking about it,” she said. “I’m incredibly proud of how Canada is dealing with it; I know there certainly are naysayers out there, but I’m 100 per cent behind the movement of getting people here and helping them out.”

While the civil war has raged since 2011, 2015 saw an unprecedented exodus of Syrians, not just out of their home country, but out of the countries nearby. A photo of lifeless Alan Kurdi, 3, on the beach in Bodrum, Turkey, changed the refugee conversation and the image hit even closer to home when it was discovered Kurdi had family in British Columbia.

The reality is at home we are so lucky to live mostly comfortable lives and only watch from afar or not at all if it doesn’t make mainstream news, said Gordon. But when a story feels closer, be it refugees coming into Canada or a deadly disease scare, the spotlight turns on.

Gordon lets herself laugh and cry as she revisits her little red book given to her by the Spanish Red Cross in Madrid when she did her emergency relief training.

She has kept notes of her work overseas with Red Cross as an emergency response unit member fighting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014 and setting off on another four-week stint in earthquake-stricken Nepal in the summer of 2015.

Gordon is at home now for the holidays on Horn Lake in the Chilcotin area, where she finally finds time to revisit, pause and close the book on her work this year.

“I feel so removed from it in so many ways because I’m here living my wonderful idyllic life,” she said. “Yet, at the same time, I’m staying connected with those people there, following them through their triumphs and tragedies back in Sierra Leone.”

When the last case was discharged and the World Health Organization was reporting former “hot zones” Ebola-free this year it “sort of severed that connection to all those people that we’d lost,” she said. That was when Gordon opened her notebook for the first time.

“I made myself a note: find Alpha a jacket.”

Alpha came into the Ebola treatment centre a 20-something “cool dude” who was full of life. He was fit, healthy and strong and spent his good days spreading positive vibes to others. But when his symptoms progressed, his health began to deteriorate and he grew cold.

Gordon was quick to dig through mounds of donated clothing until she spotted a metallic jacket. She offered him the shimmery find over the quarantine zone and Alpha was so overjoyed with the gift he began to dance.

The jacket reminds Gordon of his simple pleasures but is also a chilling reminder of Alpha’s death. “I have the image of him lying there on his cot dead and wearing this jacket that he was so attached to.”

Gordon grows quiet thinking about how Ebola took hold.

The infectious and frequently fatal disease marked by fever and severe internal bleeding, spreads through contact with infected body fluids. The deadly outbreak in West Africa hit Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea the hardest.

“When Ebola is present everything else moves into the shadows,” said Gordon, or that’s at least how it was in the height of the epidemic.

The morgue was overflowing when Gordon took a post-mortem swab during one of her shifts. She remembers looking around and feeling hopeless. But just as she was accepting defeat, she was given new energy when she saw how “powerful the human spirit” was in the treatment centre where staff and patients laughed, and the mood lightened. Gordon paused and refocused.

That’s often how much time she was given to get it together. The disease swept through villages at an alarming rate and proved that no one was immune, killing otherwise young and healthy people.

“Whenever there was a new hot spot everybody would go, ‘Oh no, there has been 70 new cases in this village’ and it sort of almost bulldozed you over,” she said. “But then you charge in there with a whole bunch of educators, and you isolate the people who are in contact and you try to stop the chain of infection.”

Along the way it became clear that traditional burial practices were hindering preventative measures. Relief workers were sensitive to the burial traditions, and began persuading communities to heed their advice and allow trained specialists to handle the bodies of victims.

“Nobody knows exactly what made the switch flip,” said Gordon, but good work by the Red Cross and other organizations finally showed results.

She returned on Christmas day in 2014 with cold symptoms and spent some time in isolation before she was deemed clear of possible infection. The Interior Health employee was back to work delivering care to eight different health centres in First Nation’s communities in the Chilcotin area.

But when disaster struck in Nepal, a quake measuring 7.8 on April 25 followed by a powerful 7.3 tremor on May 12, Gordon headed to Dunche, Nepal, to act as a team leader at a field hospital.

There was tragedy there, but there was also hope for the people displaced and in tent cities. The team made progress by reaching beyond their scope of practice with visits to pop-up communities to investigate what the needs were and educate the Nepalese on hygiene and other valuable preventative measures. The group also connected with sister organizations, which provided further assistance to individuals with specific needs.

There is joy in her voice as she remembers the friends she made, some she lost and others she still follows through medical correspondence.

When she comes home, the highs of her work are met with the lows. But she is lucky enough to sink back into her cozy home, process what she just experienced and heal. Gordon now awaits the emergency call to lend a hand with the refugee crisis. She owes it to her family, three adult boys, her partner Rob and her dogs, for patiently supporting her along the way.

“I very sincerely feel incredibly thankful that I have the skill to help in these situations, and that I have the training to go and work in an unusual setting,” she said.

She always finds her centre when she’s at home. Stepping outside into the wilderness and taking in the natural beauty is the best kind of therapy and leaves her rested and ready for her next mission.

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