AFTER 30 years as a frontline paramedic, Mark Smith thought himself beyond tears.

Then he saw three teenage sisters who survived the ravages of Ebola welcomed back into a community that thought them lost to the “Red Zone”.

Mark’s eyes misted faster than condensation could cloud his protective goggles.

Several weeks on from trying to hold back tears in Sierra Leone, the 57-year-old from Colwall still struggles to express exactly what the moment meant.

“The pure joy of this... tears of pure joy...”

Words trail off to lead Mark back inside the “Welcome Tent” at Kerry Town Ebola treatment centre, and a spontaneous explosion of clapping, dancing and colour that the three sisters stepped into having washed stigma away in the “Happy Shower” to re-new the rest of their lives – as Ebola survivors.

“I have no defence against something like that,” says Mark.

 “And I don’t want one.”

 In the Red Zone though, the mask could never slip - literally.

 There, millimetres made the difference between heading home to quarantine or your own place in a critical care unit.

So Mark, a Hereford-based senior paramedic with West Midlands Ambulance Service (WMAS) spent much of his six week secondment to Kerry Town treatment centre - run by Save The Children - either inside a biohazard suit or showing others how to get into one.

In January, the Hereford Times reported Mark as answering a call from the NHS for UK volunteers to boost the fight against Ebola.

Then, Mark spoke of his part in that fight as being “ personal” when the disease denied the human touch to the end.

“It robs parents of that last contact with children and children of that last contact with parents. As a medical professional it doesn’t get much more personal than that,” he said.

Working directly with desperate Ebola patients in the Red Zone, contact came as application of basic nursing care.

Equally basic were the  20-25 minutes - at least - taken to “suit up” so thoroughly that every seam of that heat-sealed suit had to be checked for the tiniest gap that meant its immediate rejection.

With the suit came the surgical hood, the protective goggles, the wellington boots, the face mask respirator, coveralls, an apron and at least two sets of latex gloves taped closed having been held to fans to detect pin-pricks through which air could escape.

This was all donned with a “ward buddy” sharing the shift because no-one ever entered the Red Zone alone or unrecorded.

Together you checked each other and, if there was any problem, everything came off for the process to start again.

There were no thermometers in the Red Zone, guide temperatures were set at 30 degrees in the shade and over 40 out of it.

Before Kerry Town, Mark gauged temperature by the NBC suits he wore as a military medic with the heat on over both Gulf Wars.

But in the Zone, a shift was measured out in sweat that, says Mark, didn’t ooze but seemed to pour inside your suit and so liberally you could see it filling both layers of your gloves.

 That is see it for as long as you could keep your goggles free of condensation.

“You build up a tolerance,” says Mark.

 “Thirty minutes, 40 minutes, an hour,  that your body can take until dehydration becomes dangerous.”

At the end of a shift you tipped out the sweat sloshing in your boots for a “strip down”  as meticulous the “suit up”, standing outstretched to be sprayed all over with a chlorine mix before each protection layer is peeled off, starting at the hood, and most of the time with your eyes closed.

A thorough shower and a seven stage hand wash see you out.

Even away from the Zone, Ebola was an ever present risk.

 Mark came through a scare of his own when a bad headache and rising temperature passed the threshold for reporting.

The centre's on-call doctor had seen it all before.

Sometimes a bad headache and a rising temperature was just... a bad headache and a rising temperature.

A “couple of paracetamol” put Mark right, though he admits to having reached a reconciliation with the possibility of being an Ebola patient.

“I thought if you’ve got it, there’s nothing you can do about it”.

In Kerry Town, everybody knew somebody with Ebola – if they hadn’t had it themselves, says Mark.

But the smiles were just as infectious and you couldn’t help but return them.

Over Mark’s secondment, survival rates were around 60 per cent and, as the reception in the Welcome Tent showed, the stigma attached to survivors perceived as carriers is slowly dissipating.

With 21 days of quarantine up, Mark is back working blue light response around the county - as he has done for 30 years – having received an Outstanding Achievement award from WMAS to salute his time in Kerry Town.

He’ll confess, though, that on those rare quieter moments during a shift he’ll catch himself wondering whether Kerry Town really happened.

Just to make sure of the difference made - and the memories that went with it - he’d “go back like a shot.”

“It’s a unique experience and an honour and a privilege to serve in such an environment,” he said.