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Triumph over adversity: Isata’s story 

Isata Mandoh, inspirational nurse

The first thing you notice about Isata is her smile. A magnificent beam, constantly threatening to give way to a hearty laugh. For someone who has known incredible hardship, she hides it well. The one thing you need to know about Isata Mandoh (Advanced Nursing, 2016) is that she is the triumph of hope over adversity. Surviving a brutal civil war and the outbreak of the world’s deadliest disease, Isata’s determination to change the lives of her people is awe-inspiring. Thanks to a Commonwealth Scholarship to study a master’s degree here at Nottingham, Isata is returning home this winter as Sierra Leone’s most qualified nurse.  

We meet Isata in the School of Health Sciences, putting the final touches on a presentation about her life experiences for one last conference before her return to Sierra Leone. It wasn’t noticeable at first, but we didn’t shake hands. At the height of the Ebola outbreak, strict rules on human contact were enforced in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease. Isata is still wary of breaking the habit. 

Born into a small ethnic group which doesn’t educate young women, Isata’s mother died when she was five. It’s a cruel irony that having been sent away to Freetown to be raised by an aunt, she was sent to school. 

“My aunt and uncle went through trying times and weren’t offered such opportunities, but they never flinched from encouraging me,” said Isata.  

“I’ve always been interested in education. When I was younger I helped my tutors with the junior students. I got my degree at Njala University – my husband supported me through it and then when I graduated I supported him through his degree.”

“We thought we were all going to die”

Isata trained as a nurse before becoming an educator and clinical supervisor at a local hospital. During the Ebola crisis, she was responsible for training nurses so they could head out to the flashpoints of outbreaks. She lost relatives, friends and medical colleagues to the disease, including a leading doctor who sponsored her scholarship application to Nottingham.

We had three types of people during the outbreak. The infected, the defeated and the affected.

I was lucky – I was one of the affected.  
"It was a terrible time," said Isata. "I would return from the market once a month and before I could go inside my own home, I would undress so that my husband could pour chlorine on me before burning my clothes.
“We reached a point where we thought it was hopeless and we were all going to die. People died who had more knowledge and experience than me. I ask myself, ‘how did I survive’?”


“I thought I knew everything there was to know about nursing”

Isata had to turn down her first offer of a place at Nottingham, because of Ebola movement restrictions, but when the University came back to her a year later she was amazed. 

“I never thought I would hear from Nottingham again. It is indeed a university of possibilities!

I’ve been exposed to people I never thought I would meet, and I’ve learned about so many different cultures without even travelling to those countries because of the global connections of the University. 

“I thought I knew everything there was to know about nursing, but this year has opened my eyes to so many new things. I’ll be going back to Sierra Leone with new tools to help raise the profile of healthcare workers in my country.

It’s not going to be easy because I’m a woman in an ‘inferior’ profession. But I’m hopeful. I’m going to contribute immensely to my profession, and maybe people will look differently at us now and perhaps listen to what I’m saying.
Alumni nurse Isata Mandoh in action

“It’s difficult for women in my country to be educated because of embedded cultural practices. But I’ve been fighting to push forward – just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I shouldn’t achieve my dreams. And my main dream is to be educated – I want to be an example for other women. When you are determined in life, the sky is the limit.”

“I’m a new person now” 

“Ebola was contained, but we’ll live with the consequences for the next 20-30 years. People have lost loved ones, bread winners and property, while others have developed medical conditions because of Ebola. 

“I cry when I think of the people I lost. These were people who were passionate about the future, who would have helped me to move the barriers and do something for my country. But they are no more. My country went through 11 years of civil war. Our economy was stabilising again, and then Ebola came along to put us back to zero. 

I have survived.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I feel like a new person now.
"My scholarship award was the best thing that ever happened to me.I don’t think people who support scholarships truly know what this opportunity has done for me. Education is precious. Look at me and imagine the multiplier effect of the education you have provided.

"By supporting someone like me, you’re giving an invaluable gift. It’s not only myself who benefits – my family, my friends, my patients, my students, their patients. They will all benefit from my skills, from what I have learned and experienced at Nottingham.”

When we part, Isata apologises for not shaking hands but offers a big hug instead. With passion, determination and knowledge, she returns home to shape the future of her nation, bringing hope to the country she loves.  

Applications for the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship for postgraduate medicine and nursing are open until 10 March. 


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