Cokie van der Velde - the Yorkshire grandmother battling Ebola

PUBLISHED: 15:43 27 November 2015 | UPDATED: 15:43 27 November 2015

Cokie Van der Velde, working for the MSF in Africa

Cokie Van der Velde, working for the MSF in Africa

Nichole Sobecki

An inspirational woman from North Yorkshire has been recongnised for her efforts to fight deadly disease and deal with crises around the world. Paul Mackenzie reports

Taking precautions against the Ebola virusTaking precautions against the Ebola virus

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been the deadliest since the disease was discovered, killing five times more people than all previous occurrences put together. More than 11,000 lives have been lost, families have been torn apart and communities have been ravaged by the highly contagious infection.

Medical staff from across the world have been mobilised and harrowing images of the effects of the illness have become a staple of news broadcasts. But amid the horror of the disease are some inspirational stories, such as the grandmother from North Yorkshire who won the Women of the Year award at a ceremony held in a London hotel in October.

Cokie van der Velde has volunteered for Medecins Sans Frontieres for almost 15 years and since 2014 she has been working with victims of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo Guinea and Liberia.

The 55-year-old, who lives at Whixley, received the award at the 60th anniversary Women of the Year Lunch and Awards ceremony which was hosted by Women of the Year president, Sandi Toksvig, with awards introduced by actress Nicole Kidman, Coronation Street star Sally Dynevor, newscaster Julie Etchingham and broadcaster Lorraine Kelly.

Cokie has travelled to 14 countries working on infectious disease projects and most recently was working with MSF to dispose of the victims’ bodies in Liberia and Guinea, when the virus is at its most infectious.

She said: ‘MSF contacted me when I was in Liberia and asked me to keep the date free but they were quite evasive about why. I looked into what was happening on that day and saw it was the Women of the Year awards lunch and thought maybe they’d arranged for me to attend the lunch but never for a minute did I think I would get an award.

‘It’s nice that the work that was done was recognised but I don’t think this award was just for me, they wanted to honour an Ebola worker and my name came out of the hat. I accepted the award on behalf of everyone who, but if they want to see it, they’ll have to come to my house.

‘It was an incredible do. There were 400 women there who have achieved so much and I felt a fraud, to be honest.’

But speaking at the ceremony, Jane Luca, the chair of Women of the Year said: ‘She has repeatedly ignored her own safety to doggedly carry out her vital work in Africa with Medecins Sans Frontiers. She insists she isn’t a heroine for what she does. We beg to differ.’

Cokie moved to Harrogate from London with her Dutch parents at the age of four and worked in a range of fields before volunteering with MSF. Her first mission was in Turkmenistan where she supported the pediatric, infectious diseases, intensive care and maternity ward. She has also helped fight an outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe and in 2010 she was a part of MSF’s response team in Haiti after the earthquake there.

‘It’s not just altruism that makes me do this, I enjoy the intensity of the work,’ she said. ‘Before I began volunteering with MSF I was self-employed with my own management development company in Settle. I had done that for eight years and it no longer interested me. I sold the company and stopped work for about a year but found that not working didn’t suit me.

‘I had wanted to do aid work since I was young but had never had the opportunity. I had my son when I was very young and the wonderful thing is that after they grow up you still have plenty of time to follow what you want to do.

‘When I joined MSF I worked as a logistician which involves doing everything that’s not done by medical staff. I was organising the transportation of goods, dealing with the accounts and contracts and getting involved with construction.

‘If it’s a bigger mission then those categories get broken down but in Turkmenistan there was a nurse, a doctor and me and I did everything that was non-medical.

‘My son and my mother who was alive at that time, were quite proud of me and I think they thought the work suited me. I’m sure if she had been alive during the recent outbreak my mother would have been very worried. My son accepts that this is my job and that I should know what I’m doing by now.

‘He and my daughter-in-law have said I could stop, that I’ve done my bit and I don’t have to go back any more, but I enjoy the life and I have made some very good friends. It is nice to think you have helped to stop the disease spreading.’

Cokie now works in water and sanitation control and she added: ‘A lot of the work on my recent mission was collecting the bodies and arranging the safe disposal of them because that is when the virus is most infectious.

‘I had seen a few bodies before, during other disease outbreaks, but nothing on this scale. There were 20 bodies a day, and such small children too.

‘It was hard not to think of the lives that had been cut short and the lives those children should have had, and especially when you have grandchildren of your own and you start to think of your own family.’

After returning from West Africa Cokie has been able to spend time with her family, including her three grandchildren aged two, seven and ten.

She has also enjoyed tending to her garden, but she has no plans to retire and will be back with MSF at a crisis somewhere in the world this month.

‘I imagine I’ll be involved in some work with refugees,’ she said. ‘I’m never short of work.It is physically hard and I will reach a point when I can’t do it any more. They have asked me to be a trainer so when I feel I can’t do it any more, I will probably go to Brussels and train the next generation.’ w

Winning women

Cokie was one of six women who received special Women of the Year Awards for inspiring others with their courage, selflessness and dedication.

More than 400 women attended the lunch and awards ceremony and the winners were chosen by a judging panel of outstanding women which included Sandi Toksvig CBE, Sue MacGregor CBE, Dame Tessa Jowell MP and Baroness Doreen Lawrence OBE.

Mark McLane, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at awards sponsors Barclays, said: ‘Cokie does one of the grimmest and most dangerous jobs imaginable, disposing of the victims’ bodies in Liberia and Guinea, when the virus is at its most infectious. Her work with MSF offers humanitarian assistance across borders and we applaud her courage.’

And Cokie said: ‘I think it’s very important to have an award specifically for women because the world isn’t equal, far from it, so it’s very nice to highlight what women have done and are achieving.

‘Ebola disproportionately affects women – it’s women who tend to the sick in their families and communities and it’s women who lay out the bodies. I met and worked alongside many incredible women during the Ebola outbreak and I want to share this honour with all of them too, as recognition for their dedication and bravery.’

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