Sylvester talks about his work in the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society. He shares his story to help inspire the next generation of health workers in Sierra Leone.
I studied tropical community medicine and health at Fourah Bay College in Freetown and Nixon Memorial Hospital Nursing School in Segbwema. I became interested in the Red Cross Society after seeing a job announcement on their branch office’s notice board. They wanted someone with a degree in nursing or public health to take charge of clinical activities in the district headquarter town. The ideal applicant would diagnose, treat, and refer patients. They would also conduct trainings and workshops for fellow staff. I met all the requirements, already having experience as a state-enrolled community health nurse (SECHN).
After applying for the position, the Red Cross invited me to take a written test of about twenty questions. Some were multiple choice and others needed longer responses. They asked me questions like, “how would you treat a patient with a high fever and generalized body pain?” Six other applicants took the test in the same room, then a panel of five people interviewed us one-by-one.
The panel included the Red Cross Director of Administration and the Red Cross Secretary General from Freetown; as well as the Field Officer, District Medical Officer (DMO), and Red Cross Chairman from Moyamba. First they asked about my qualifications and work experience. Then they asked about recent workshops that I attended under the Ministry of Health. I told them about a workshop on the proper disposal of medical waste. Then the panel asked how I would organize the staff if I was in charge of a clinic. I said I’d make an organogram to illustrate the staff hierarchy. Then I would prepare a staff activity list or timetable to know who is doing what and at what time.
One question gave me trouble. They asked me to name ministers or people with political position in health, education, and agriculture. I could only name some of them. But then they asked for chiefdoms and paramount chief names in my district—I answered perfectly! Afterwards they asked for my patience during the lengthy selection process. I left feeling very confident about my performance. I became the Clinic Health Nurse in Charge less than one month after my interview.
I worked with an excellent supporting staff and we really appreciated each other. Together we conducted workshops on water, health, and sanitation issues, including HIV/AIDS. As part of my clinic duties I kept stock of all the drugs in our possession. That was very important since we wouldn’t want to run out of medicine. I made sure to use drugs that would expire soon, instead of opening new ones. We didn’t want to waste any medicine. My supervisors complimented my management style in terms of finances and staff, and they even commended the orderliness of the clinic environment. They found that all of our patients received their required treatments. After some time they promoted me from Clinic Health Nurse in Charge to Field Health Officer.
As Field Health Officer I work outside the clinic with volunteers and coaches. Volunteers are community members who receive training in Red Cross techniques. They know more about their local culture than I do, including their seasonal calendars, languages, traditions, and beliefs.
Volunteers conduct house-to-house visits for many reasons. Some visit pregnant and lactating women to ensure that they consistently sleep under a bed net. Volunteers also teach them about the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of a baby’s life. They can also instruct families on hygienic practices and environmental sanitation techniques. For example, volunteers encourage people to use clotheslines since ground drying increases the risk for skin infections like scabies and ringworm.
They also help set up compost fences and trash pits to separate household waste from living areas. Sometimes volunteers will make hand washing stations and teach the four key hand washing times: before eating, before touching and preparing food, after using the toilet, and after handling a baby’s waste.
Volunteers report to one of the three coaches in our branch office. Coaches train and monitor volunteers as they carry out community activities. The coaches prepare reports for me. If I see any issues in the report, I will visit the community to help mend the problem. Other than that I visit communities every three months.
Presently we work in two chiefdoms, Kaiyamba and Kongbora. We want to create a very big impact here first before moving on to other chiefdoms. We have four components—communicable diseases, water and sanitation, reproductive and child health, and public health in emergencies. Instead of having a few components in many chiefdoms, we would rather have all four in the few communities we serve to achieve maximum impact. We want people to enter a place with pride and say “This is a Red Cross community”.
We exit a place only after we establish all four components, and we leave behind water wells, toilets, backyard gardens, tools, hand washing facilities, and income generating funds. The places we’ve helped feel happy to see us. They know we visit them for a good and useful purpose. We all work together to find solutions—I won’t do anything by myself.
I see a very bright future. We reduce vulnerability in communities and that’s great work. Where there is health there is also improvement. I believe the socioeconomic status of the communities improve after we leave. I want boys and girls to choose health as a career because it’s very instrumental, helpful, and developmental for society. They need not be afraid of science. I started as an arts students and transferred to the sciences. If young people concentrate and have passion for their goals, they can succeed as others have done before them.