Helping people most in need – such as Ebola victims in Africa – has become a focus for this selfless CPA.
By Nichola Clark
Patrea Ryan CPA was no stranger to working in remote locations. As an international management accountant for the Australian Red Cross, she oversaw many international offices and aid programs. Yet this assignment was different. Ryan was about to join the many selfless people from across the world helping to control the deadly Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
“When I saw the job advert, I knew instantly I wanted to help,” she says.
For three months, from April 2015, Ryan worked as the finance and administration delegate at one of Red Cross’s purpose-built Ebola centres in Sierra Leone.
“I was responsible for managing the financial side of the centre – overseeing the procurement team and organising all the cash transactions,” she says.
“Being a cash economy, I would meet a UN helicopter with our cash drops. At times, I looked after US$30,000 – it would be piled up in my office like a giant four-foot Jenga game!”
"Being a cash economy, I would meet a UN helicopter with our cash drops": one CPA's experience tackling Ebola.
Ryan set up financial and procurement procedures at the centre from scratch: “I worked every day for the first 30 days, until I introduced processes to enable me to take time off; it was exhausting,” she recalls.
With a “no touch” policy to reduce the risk of contamination, Ryan describes her Sierra Leone experience as “like living in a bubble”. Despite going to the local market or waving to the local children as she drove through villages, she spent most of her time with the same handful of people – “at the centre and our hotel”.
The hotel was in a little village near the district of Kono, still bearing the scars of a war-torn country.
“Sometimes we had running water, and sometimes we had electricity. I ate a lot of rice and eggs!” she laughs.
At the centre, Ryan’s office was isolated from the patients.
“To liaise with medical staff, I would enter the low-risk area, which involved wearing a full protective suit,” she says.
“The suits were very confronting. I can’t imagine how frightening it was for the patients.”
Ryan says she will never forget seeing the mass graves of the Ebola victims: “There were lines of graves simply marked with their names and ages – many children were lost.”
Against this backdrop of death and despair, Ryan was struck by the humanity of the local Red Cross staff.
“Many of them had family dying around them,” she says.
“They often faced the stigma of leaving their families and weren’t able to return to their villages for fear of contamination.”
The international staff’s dedication was relentless, too.
“One of the doctors was airlifted out in a bubble back to the UK due to a contamination risk,” says Ryan, “but a few months later she came back again.”
Related: How to be a useful voluntourist
Despite the inherent challenges and risks, Ryan now has her sights set on another Red Cross mission.
This time, she plans to work for a year in Vanuatu, which is still recovering from the devastation caused by 2015’s Cyclone Pam.
“I will be making sure we meet all the accounting and donor requirements,” she says.
Ryan credits her CPA grounding with giving her a strong background in governance and adaptability, “to ensure I can get my message across”.
“It is great to pass on this valuable knowledge and increase people’s skills in overseas offices,” she adds.
“In return, I love learning about other cultures. I can’t wait to go to Vanuatu!”
Since Ebola broke out in West Africa in early 2014, the Red Cross has played a central role in combating the epidemic. In Sierra Leone, 10,000 Red Cross staff and volunteers provided clinical care to 1240 patients - 698 survived. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea were the hardest hit by the virus, with more than 26,000 cases recorded and more than 11,000 deaths.
Read next: Accounting and finance skills tick all the boxes for this volunteer in Cambodia