Written Friday 2/27
Those of you who know me know that I’m always freezing; in the middle of the summer you’ll still likely find me curled up by the fireplace. So maybe I have the ideal constitution for working in an ETU. On Thursday and Friday we donned full PPE and trained in the mock Ebola Treatment Unit, and while I can’t say that it was a comfortable experience, I came out the other end feeling pretty good. One of my team members told me, “You were peppy in there!” which I’ll take as a compliment. When it comes to working for two hours in 80-degree heat completely encased from head to toe, I think getting out of it without heat stroke or a panic attack is a win.
In an effort to prepare us, our instructors had described in great detail the science behind what we all know already: That it is really dang hot in there. Inside the PPE is a micro-climate of 40-50 degrees Celsius and 100% humidity. This is, as our trainers put it, an “un-compensable” environment – meaning that our normal heat dissipation mechanisms (i.e., sweating) won’t work. We were repeatedly admonished that there is NO HURRY in the ETU; if we over-exert ourselves, core temperatures can reach critical levels in under an hour. They key is to pace ourselves.
A couple of members of our group did overheat during our training in the mock ETU. Although it’s awful to watch someone you’ve grown close to as they struggle against the limits of what our bodies are capable of, it was nice to see our little family rally to help each other out. If someone starts to feel unwell in their PPE, the most important thing is to admit it and get out of the red zone asap. If someone faints and goes down in their PPE in a real Ebola unit, we’ll have a whole new set of problems. Fortunately my friends headed straight to the doffing stations, and with a little fluid and electrolytes, ice packs under the armpits, rest, and kind words, they were right as rain.
While the heat turned out to be the least of my problems, I was struck by just how restricting the PPE is once I tried to do my job from inside it. Between a hood, face mask, and face shield, my field of vision is pretty restricted. And if I don’t get my mask on just right, my breath fogs up my face shield and suddenly everything is a blurry mess. The first time I donned the full getup, I pulled my hair up in a tight bun, thinking it would be best to get it out of the way altogether. I discovered quickly that with the big lump of hair at the back of my head, if I tilt my chin to look downward, my hood pulls back from my face mask, leaving a strip of completely exposed skin on my forehead. One of the lovely Sierra Leonean nurses, who probably knows more about working in an ETU than I ever will, told me that a braid down the back works best and I was happy to follow her advice.
Another restriction to adjust to is wearing two sets of gloves on top of each other. This is great from an infection control standpoint, but garbage when you want to start an IV. Most nurses I work with in the States will throw on a tourniquet and run their bare fingers over a patient’s arm to feel for the best vein – it’s usually a better bet for finding a good one than just looking. Here, we will be hunting for shriveled veins in severely dehydrated patients, with two layers of gloves between our fingers and their skin. I’m told that this is one of the areas that the Sierra Leonean nurses excel in. While we try over and over to get an IV in, another PIH-er told me that the national staff “could get blood out of a rock.” So I’ll be keeping an eye on how they do it!
As we acclimated ourselves to the PPE, we split up into teams to do rounds in the mock ETU that is set up at the training center. Ebola survivors were stationed in each ward to act like patients, and we were expected to manage their care as we will in the real world. I know I just missed the Oscars, but in my opinion every survivor we worked with should get one. As we approached one man who seemed to be unconscious, he suddenly leapt up and lurched towards us, ripping out his fake IV and trying to escape. Even though I knew there was no real danger, no actual Ebola blood spurting all over the room, it definitely got my heart pounding.
While the mock ETU was invaluable in preparing us for the real thing, I was a bit disappointed to see the national nurses take a backseat role. Our doctors made decisions and called out orders, while the nurses carried them out obediently. One of the things I’m most excited about doing here is helping to strengthen the national nurses’ confidence and critical thinking. The impression I get is that nursing education here is very task-oriented, and they are encouraged to follow protocols without necessarily understanding the reasons behind them. Although many of the nurses we trained with were very intelligent and experts at their job, one of them told me, “The doctor is always right.” In any scenario, that can be a dangerous way of thinking, since nurses should be the doctor’s eyes and ears, their final check before care is administered, and strong advocates for their patients. But in a country ravaged by Ebola where there were hardly any doctors to begin, it will be even more essential for nurses to step up and take a leading role. I do hope that once this outbreak is over, what remains are some newly trained, skilled nurses who are motivated to build their country’s health system back from the ground up.
One perfect example is a young woman I’ll call J., a beautiful Sierra Leonean nurse I met during training. She volunteered to work at a government ETU last September, without asking her family’s permission since she knew they would not approve. At that time, nurses only received two days of emergency Ebola training before being tossed in to work at an ETU. J. has been treating Ebola patients ever since, and only gets to see her husband and child when she travels back home to visit them on her days off. I asked her if she wanted more children, and she told me she does not “because it doesn’t leave time for my work, and I love my work.”
It has been such a joy getting to know the national nurses at training. All of these wonderful men and women showed up to our last day of class on Friday dressed in a gorgeous array of African fabrics. Apparently Friday is “African dress day” which made the Americans look pretty shabby in our old scrubs. Nonetheless, it was graduation day and a festive atmosphere as we all rushed around posing for photos and saying goodbye to our new friends.
Directly from training our group left for Port Loko, a district hard-hit with the virus, where PIH’s Ebola Treatment Unit is located. Here we are being housed at a tent city run by a Danish emergency management organization, which looks a lot like MASH and feels like arriving at a colony on Mars. Several large tents are each separated into six rooms, with a cot, mosquito net, and a light in each. Though it looks sparse, it’s actually quite fancy, with air conditioning, wifi, hot showers, and electricity by generator. Plus the food is fantastic, and apparently there is a clothing-optional tanning area (I’m not kidding). Although I greatly appreciate the hospitality and the amount of organization and effort that it must take to keep a camp like this running so that health workers can do their jobs, I can’t help but feel ashamed at the stark contrast between one side of our fence and the other. It is jarring to sit under a nice tent under bright lights, listening to music and going back for seconds at the buffet, while Sierra Leonean kids walk past the fence in threadbare clothes and stare.
After months of waiting, hoping, reading the news itching to be here, tomorrow is the big day. We’ll go to the ETU in the morning, where we will don our PPE and treat Ebola patients for the first time. Maybe I should feel nervous, but I don’t. I’m just glad the wait is over and I can finally have a hand in the important work that needs to be done.