By Deborah Wilson, RN. The author is currently an IV infusion therapist with the Berkshire Visiting Nurses Association in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and is completing her BSN at UMass Amherst. In October, she returned from Liberia, where she worked with Doctors Without Borders at a 120-bed Ebola treatment center. Names of patients mentioned in the article have been changed to protect patient privacy.
I have recently returned from Liberia, where I worked as a nurse for six weeks along with a dedicated team of physicians, nurses, and other professionals, treating 60 to 80 Ebola patients a day. My 21-day transition time is recently over and, although I am back at work and school, my heart is with the West African nurses who I worked with for those weeks in September and October.
I worked in a town called Foya, managing a 120-bed Ebola treatment center (ETC). During the first two weeks, I wondered if I would last. In the grueling heat, dressed up in all that personal protective equipment (PPE), constantly sprayed with chlorine, each day I was haunted by the question of whether I’d somehow gotten infected.
It all took its toll. Twice a shift the nursing team would put on PPE and enter the confirmed Ebola isolation area. People lay on mattresses on the floor, vomit and diarrhea everywhere. In our bulky gear, double-gloved, goggles fogging and sweat running out of every pore, we would insert IVs, push meds, try to help someone eat a little something, tell the hygienists that a body needed to be removed to the morgue.
So how did I go from wondering how I would make it through my six-week assignment to now actually considering going back? It was thinking about the nurses and teams who are still there going in every day, never having a 21-day transition period like mine to look forward to, all with colleagues and family who died during this devastating outbreak.
Our lives were in each other’s hands—we helped each other dress in PPE and double-checked each other before going in. Talking with one patient, I said, “we must look really weird,” and he laughed, which made us all laugh.
But there was not much laughter in the area for confirmed cases. We never knew who would live or die; sometimes the healthiest would suddenly be dead. We delivered babies who were so small and premature—I think about the young 19-year-old mother dying only an hour after her little boy had been placed in a white body bag and given a name so he could be identified in the morgue. I find myself wondering what her and her son would be doing now if there had been a way to save her.
I wonder about Joy, whose love and dedication to her husband touched all of us deeply. Daily she would come to the fence with his favorite food and George would come out and sit on the other side. When he got too sick to come outside, we dressed her in PPE and took her in, where she prayed with him. We all rejoiced when a pregnancy test revealed that Joy was pregnant, then saw her nearly immobilized with grief the next day when George died. Joy’s cries and sobs as the psychosocial team sat with her is something I still wake up to. I wonder how she is doing and where she is now. Will she have a boy or girl and what will she tell him/her about George?
The Liberian nurses still call me on the phone. They tell me that there is not one case of Ebola now in the ETC! Many have to go back to the health clinics where they worked before. All of them lost colleagues because, when sick people came to their clinics, they had no gloves, masks, or chlorine to protect them. Will they have basic protective equipment now?
They also haven’t been paid for September or October. The Liberian Ministry of Health keeps saying that they will get paid, but I fear that this outbreak has wreaked such havoc on the economy that they have risked their lives, working in conditions we will never have to endure, perhaps only to also risk earning no income as well for their efforts.
My three-week transition involved learning the news of the two nurses in Texas who were infected caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, of physician Craig Spencer testing positive in New York City and Kaci Hickox being locked up in an unheated New Jersey tent with no shower. At times I thought I would go mad—watching as a collective insanity gripped our nation about a virus unlikely to ever take hold in the U.S., I yearned for the day when we could instead turn our attention to what I believe this terrible epidemic in West Africa could really be teaching us:
- That we are an ever-more-interconnected global community. America could be leading the fight against Ebola—bringing to bear our generosity, love of heroes, and “can do” attitude to support nations that are struggling to contain a true epidemic. We don’t need to close borders or ban children from school just because they are Liberian.
- That we should remember that health care workers take risks every day to care for people. The only two people infected in the U.S. have been nurses—there are so many more nurses and others who have been infected by HIV and hepatitis C.
- We need to make sure that appropriate protective measures are in place and people are trained to use them. We must also respect that, even with the perfect measures, there is always a risk for any health care worker.
- Let’s pause to evaluate our own level of adherence to infection control measures. Too many patients leave the hospital infected with something that undoubtedly has been spread by us.
- Look at how lucky we are. Liberia is fighting Ebola as a country reported to have only 51 physicians for the whole population. Most of the country does not have running water or electricity, and the health clinics and hospitals function with no gloves, masks, or protective gear.
Rather than shunning others, ostracizing them, and overreacting, perhaps we could be inspired by our brush with Ebola to step up and respond with the best of ourselves to our neighbors, our nurses, and our global brothers and sisters.