At just 23 years old, Squamish nurse Ian MacKay has volunteered in some of the most troubled areas of the world, each of them leaving an indelible mark on his psyche. But none of those experiences — not an earthquake-ravished Haiti in 2008 or a war-torn Eastern Congo last year — would compare to the harrowing time this summer he spent working in an Ebola clinic in Liberia.
“I know this was definitely the hardest trip I’ve ever been on,” MacKay said, now back in B.C. since returning last month. “The exposure to death was just unreal. You know when these people walked into that Ebola centre thinking they’re positive with the virus that there was a good chance they weren’t going to be walking out on two feet, but leaving in a body bag.”
MacKay was in the West African nation that has been so devastated by unprecedented outbreaks of the hemorrhagic virus with a Christian aid group called Samaritan’s Purse. He and a group of six other ex-pats would be thrust into international headlines after two of MacKay’s colleagues — Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol — contracted the virus.
It was the first significant exposure the outbreak received in the major press, and MacKay made the onerous decision to give up his seat on a flight home to stay and help his friends and coworkers evacuate the country.
“I made the decision to stay and it was a very tough decision. I know it was tough for my family as well,” MacKay explained.
“When I first hit the wall and cracked, I wanted to get out of there right away, hop on a plane and come home to be as close to a good healthcare system as I possibly could. But at that point, I knew I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to Kent and Nancy that I could’ve helped prevent.”
Eventually Brantly and Writebol would be cleared of the virus and discharged from hospital, but, for the thousands of patients and medical staff still struggling with the deadly virus, there appears to be no end in sight.
And that’s why MacKay wants to go back.
“I felt like I abandoned the people there and the job wasn’t done when I left,” he said. “I felt that the hardest part of this trip was abandoning them, and that’s why I need to go back. I don’t think I’ll be at peace with this whole situation until I’m able to go back and see the virus contained and see that the international community has stepped up and done the proper humanistic thing.”
With the unspeakable horrors MacKay witnessed firsthand in Liberia, you realize the young man is simply wired differently than most, and, as odd as it may sound at first, he attributes that in part to growing up in the mountain town of Squamish.
“As a small-town Squamish boy, I knew I could go into these areas and live off little to none because that’s sort of what you’re raised with in Squamish, being able to do that, being raised in the mountains and knowing I can live in a tent without a roof over my head,” he said.
“A lot of people aren’t compelled to go in these dangerous environments, but it’s just who I am.”
For an extended version of this story, pick up a copy of Pique this Thursday.