© Stephen Ryan and IFRC

© Stephen Ryan and IFRC

When Rachel went to Liberia last year, she watched as Ebola spread across the country. Back in the UK, she knew she had to do something to help all the friends she had made there.

While student Rachel Ayrton was in Liberia last year, she saw cases of Ebola crop up around the country.

She didn’t know then that it would spiral into a devastating outbreak of disease across most of West Africa.

Nor that she would end up pausing her PhD to raise thousands of pounds to help.

Rachel Ayrton Profile pic Mar14‘A great deal of fear’

Rachel is a student at the University of Southampton, doing a sociology PhD funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. As part of her degree, she needed to do some fieldwork in a country that’s experienced conflict. She was initially heading to South Sudan, but then civil war broke out.

After a lot of thought, Rachel picked Liberia as an alternative. She got in touch with the Liberian Red Cross, who were happy to help with the research.

In July 2014, Rachel travelled to Liberia for an initial scout. She intended to return a bit later for a three-month stint.

During that fortnight, she spent some time with the Liberian Red Cross, and really got to know the team. They were a great support, but it was clear they had their eye on the escalating Ebola outbreak.

“They had an Ebola team in Monrovia who were getting out all the time,” says Rachel. “There was definitely a great deal of fear, but the cases seemed regional. They were mostly limited to the north-west of the country.”

But the disease soon spread.

‘I was horrified’

By the time Rachel returned to the UK, the situation was a great deal more serious.

Her friends at the Liberian Red Cross were now in the midst of a full-blown emergency. They sent her the odd email, but internet connectivity was poor – and the team were swamped with the crisis taking over their country.

Rachel was utterly shocked – and felt completely helpless.

“I could see the graph spiking in terms of the number of cases. It was getting a lot more severe and pervasive,” she explains.

“I felt very involved with the situation there. I was crying over it. It was just so awful. I was horrified.”

21 days without fever

Rachel scoured the internet for information from trusted sources. She soon realised that many friends and colleagues – and the media – were misunderstanding the facts and escalating the panic.

People seemed worried about catching the virus in the UK.

She tells me: “People seemed poorly informed and, in some cases, were developing irrational fears. I wanted to dispel some of the myths about Ebola.”

Rachel set up a blog to do this – which she launched three weeks after returning from Liberia, at the end of her incubation period. She now knew for sure that she didn’t have Ebola.

“During those 21 days, I had a horrendous cold. It was a real dilemma, as I was still doing things like going to my sister’s house and seeing my two-year-old nephew. I was taking my temperature three times a day, to be sure. I knew it was just a cold, but you’re still living with this anxiety. It’s highly unlikely you’ve caught the virus – but it’s not impossible.

“It makes you think: ‘Imagine what it would be like to actually live in that society, with the threat of this virus, every single day.’ I wanted people to understand that.

“So I wrote a post every day, for 21 days.”

Love for their people

Rachel was really pleased when blog views began to rise. She was getting encouraging comments from people around the world.

But as the plans for her PhD fell apart, she knew she wanted to do more for the people in Liberia – and the friends she had met.

“The Liberian Red Cross is run by Liberians. There is this fantastic network of volunteers in every county of the country. They have this humanitarian heart, this love for their people – and a desire to help. I think that’s really unique, and a lot more empowering of people.”

She adds: “The Red Cross were one of the key organisations in that country for Ebola response. As the outbreak worsened, their resources were overwhelmed. Anything else they were doing had to stop.

“Those people were so supportive to me. I felt like I needed to give something back.”

Money in memory

That’s when Rachel set up a fundraising page. Soon she was baking cakes and selling fried plantain (just like they make it in Liberia) to raise money to help provide basic, inexpensive things, such as gloves and facemasks.

Her efforts were soon rewarded – and she was delighted when the fundraising total shot up to over £2,000.

The tally got a big boost when her parents gave some money in memory of her grandfather.

Donate in memory

This donation is in memory of your Grampa, who I am sure is so proud of you. He used to teach at Red Cross first aid classes and supported the Red Cross all his life.

Rachel’s grandfather had been a doctor, specialising in community health. He also volunteered with the Red Cross, teaching first aid and the importance of life-saving skills.

Sadly, he passed away less than a year previously, in November 2013.

Rachel’s mother then had the idea of donating some money from his legacy to her daughter’s cause.

She later told Rachel: “I felt he’d want to support what you were doing, if he was still alive.”

Rising from the horror

Today, a year later, Liberia is finally free from Ebola. But it still has to recover from the trauma and grief.

“The consequences were really destructive,” says Rachel. “It’s not just the physical deaths. It’s the pain that you weren’t able to bury someone. You didn’t nurse your dying relative. You couldn’t shake hands when you greeted someone. Ebola divided people – and you couldn’t even comfort each other.”

The country is also reeling from a loss of jobs. Many children are not in school, as their parents don’t work. The healthcare system has to rebuild itself, while diseases like malaria continue to rear their head.

But Rachel is hopeful that she’ll go back to Liberia one day.

“I would love to return, but only when I have something to offer. I need to know that I am bringing some benefit.

“I feel very indebted to the kindness of everyone there who helped me.”