How to fight Ebola with empathy

Nursing alumna Yanti Turang is a force for global good health. She shares what it’s like to work at the Ebola frontline, where patient care comes through a protective suit.

A natural disaster inspired La Trobe University alumna Yanti Turang to study nursing. Arriving in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, she was struck by helplessness as the devastating effects escalated throughout the US city.

‘I felt like I couldn't give or do anything, except maybe support people who were going through it. I remember thinking, I need to choose a career where I can actually get in there and help out in a situation like this,’ she says.

Returning to Australia, Turang took up a Bachelor of Nursing (2009) at La Trobe. Having previously completed a Bachelor of Arts (2002) at La Trobe, her decision was straightforward.

‘I wanted to come here because of La Trobe’s international perspective. It’s a great university with the help of students from all over the world, and I wanted to be a part of that global community.’

Turang has since applied that global outlook to her own health career. She’s worked as a Registered Nurse in hospitals from Melbourne to New Orleans, provided care on-set as a film industry medic and founded global healthcare non-profit LearnToLive, connecting communities worldwide to healthcare, education and clean water.

Across all Turang’s roles is an ambition to help others. So when, in 2015, she was asked to join the frontline of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, she readily accepted. Her motivations were two-fold.

‘The first was that I possessed a skill that was needed – I was a nurse. Working in global healthcare through LearnToLive, I already understood how rigorous it was out there in the field. I felt like my experience matched up,’ she says.

Second was the chance to work with a world-leading global health organisation during a major crisis.

‘It was extreme fieldwork and I hoped to learn a lot. I wanted to feed that experience back into LearnToLive, based on what I experienced as someone joining another organisation, on what worked and what didn’t.’

Three layers of gloves and a hazmat suit

When Turang arrived in Port Loko, she faced a horrific situation. The people of Sierra Leone had been hit by a deadly Ebola epidemic, right when they were rebuilding their lives after a 10-year civil war.

The country’s developing infrastructure, combined with Ebola’s extraordinarily high fatality rate – of all the patients Turang worked with there, only two survived – set the scene for what she describes as an ‘absolutely debilitating’ public health crisis.

‘There’s no cure for Ebola,’ Turang explains. ‘The objective is contact precaution: tracing patients who’ve been exposed, finding who they’ve exposed to, then containment.’

In the field, Turang was confronted constantly. Seeing the disease firsthand was a sickening, daily challenge.

‘It’s a horrifying disease process to watch. Basically, at the end of the disease, all of your major organs shut down. It’s horrific.’

Added to this was the clinical challenge of preventing exposure to Ebola. For Turang, this meant wearing a hazmat (hazardous materials) suit.

‘The suit takes 25 minutes to put on, then you’re in it for about an hour. When you’re done, you have to be sprayed with chlorine the whole time you’re taking it off, so you don’t contract Ebola or you don’t touch something else that could contract it,’ she says.

Despite these precautions, there were moments when Turang felt utterly frightened.

‘There was a time when my glove ripped – I was wearing triple layered gloves, but it still ripped. You’re in the suit sweating and in tears, thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’ve had exposure.’ And you just hope you haven’t.’

Ebola suits

Caring for patients with Ebola

Working in a clinical environment on non-stop, high alert takes a special strength of character. And while Turang came to the work with remarkable grit and courage, she also drew on the essentials of nursing care she learned at La Trobe.

‘When I look back at my degree, the fundamental care structure it teaches you still exists, no matter who your patient is. People are people. The patients I met through my sub-acute placements as a young student at La Trobe, I’ll always remember them. And that patient care approach threads through everything,’ she says.

‘Whether you’re taking care of a patient with Ebola or an 89-year-old with dementia, they need empathy. And that’s what my nursing degree at La Trobe built me for,’ she says.

Turang describes how she overcame the literal barriers between her and Ebola patients by applying nursing’s most essential practice – connecting empathically.

‘Even when I’m caring for people through a hazmat suit and three pairs of gloves, I’d always touch my patients. Touching your patients is very powerful, because it can instantly bring the level of anxiety down,’ she says.

‘Although my patient has Ebola, if they can feel that I’ve touched their shoulder, or that I’m standing right beside them making eye contact, they can tell it’s empathy, not sympathy – especially when their life’s on the line.’

In the field, without interpreters, Turang says there’s often no need for words.

‘If someone’s dying of Ebola, you have to be very present and open. You don’t need to say anything. You hold them,’ she says. ‘What else can you do?’

Turang applied this back-to-basics approach in nursing children exposed to Ebola, too. She shares the story of a four-year-old boy admitted with his mother to her Sierra Leone clinic.

‘His mum died on arrival, which meant he was in the Ebola unit by himself. It was terrifying for him,’ she says.

‘When I got out of the hazmat suit and back into the office, I found an old plastic bottle and filled it with rocks. I made toys for him. And when I next went into the Ebola treatment unit, we could just play. Even through those horrific times, if you just go back to the basics of relating to people, you can connect with them.’

Yanti Turang in the field

Why relationship matters in global healthcare

Turang’s career in global health is stamped by her belief in the power of human relationships. Now the Executive Director of LearnToLive, she’d forged professional relationships the world over. Each relationship is founded on recognition and respect for local knowledge, culture and priorities across communities.

‘At LearnToLive, all our partnerships are based on relationships, whether that’s in mobile health clinics in Indonesia, or capacity building, training and education in Laos and Kenya. It’s about joining and partnering with communities of people to reach shared goals,’ she says.

‘In Indonesia, for example, my local team is contacted because someone’s heard of what we do. The local team will go and speak to the Chief, then have community meetings with all the different stakeholders involved. We ensure the relationship is dictated by our local team and that, as a foreign NGO, we’re more about being able to offer support.’

Part of that support is through partnerships with universities like La Trobe. Through LearnToLive’s Global Health Student Program, La Trobe health students have the chance to work with patients at mobile health clinics in Northern Sulawesi, Indonesia.

‘We took two La Trobe nursing students with last year and I just interviewed three more. In Indonesia, they’re exposed acute and chronic illness, mental health and dentistry. They hone their skills in treating not just the disease, but the person behind it,’ says Turang.

It’s these people skills that Turang believes offer young health graduates a promising lifelong career.

‘You’re going into a field that will have need for many years to come,’ she advises.

‘Be open to all of the possibilities, because a degree in nursing or health can give you so many opportunities. You can couple it with a lot of things. I recently finished my MBA, I started my own non-profit – you can do anything with it!’

We certainly can’t wait to see what Turang does next.

Yanti Turang won the La Trobe Alumni Young Achiever Award in 2014. Know someone who should be celebrated? Nominate them for a Distinguished Alumni Award today.

Find an expert

Search our experts database.