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Ants and mummies: Christmas less conventional in Sierra Leone

A round-up of medical news and oddities from left field by Dr Doug Witherspoon

We all face unique challenges during this particular Christmas and New Year period. If you’re working in a hospital, you’re probably trying to imagine ways to make the holiday period a little more festive for patients and staff, which is more challenging in the hug-free zone in which we find ourselves.

However, while browsing the various Christmas-related scenarios faced by healthcare workers around the world, I stumbled upon a blog by a nurse working for Médecins Sans Frontières in Sierra Leone that provides a little perspective.

Glasgow man Chris Sweeney, who works with under-fives in a clinic there, provides an outline of his typical daily routine, which includes having a cold shower at 6am because this is the only time of the day when he actually manages to feel cool.

He describes how his battered advent calendar must be relocated each day to keep the ants away from it, although he still has to blow some of the relentless scavengers off the calendar each morning. A little touch of home, although each day’s Santa invariably has a half-melted face.

His guests and guards also get to open the calendar, although Chris has to explain to them unheard-of phenomena such as Christmas puddings, snowflakes, and snowmen.

Then it’s off to the clinic, where he faces a daily questionnaire and screening process to detect malaria. A necessary step, of course – some of his healthcare colleagues contracted the disease, one of whom hallucinated for a full week. This experience included the vision of Chris standing by his bed talking to him while dressed as a mummy.

The clinic needs to be swept daily to remove the piles of soil, sand and chicken feathers and each time the pharmacy door is opened at the beginning of the week, whoever crosses the doorway is treated to a shower of wood shavings and dead termites.

On the ward, Chris reports, somebody has left a vial of glucose open and the ants have been swift in exploiting the situation. Once the vial has been disposed of, the rest of the swarm moves on in search of the next unguarded meal. For the humans, a meal of goat pepper soup is a most welcome treat.

We all have our challenges this holiday season and we all deal with them as best we can. While we can’t wrap healthcare in tinsel, caring for ill people and giving them hope is the most valuable and treasured gift you can give and definitely places you firmly on the ‘nice’ list, wherever you are working this Christmas.

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