Martha Phillips is aware of precisely the way it feels to abruptly discover oneself up near — and unprotected from — a lethal virus.
In 2014, Phillips, an emergency room nurse, was on the bedside of a suspected Ebola affected person in Sierra Leone when the disposable plastic guard defending her face got here unfastened.
“I turned my head quickly and my shield came off,” she recounted. “So I am in an Ebola treatment unit and my eyes are completely exposed.” She stayed calm and rapidly left the room.
Phillips, 35 on the time, had arrived in a rural nook of northwestern Sierra Leone simply as Ebola circumstances have been surging in West Africa.
One day, early on, greater than 50 sufferers flooded into their hospital — a set of deserted lecture rooms that had been transformed into remedy models. She and different nurses labored into the evening, till they ran out of provides.
“We had no blankets, no pillows, no water,” she stated. “We were just hauling them out of ambulances and putting them in beds, and then we had to get out.”
Phillips had by no means labored in a conflict zone and stated no coaching may have ready her for the sort of fast triage.
“There is nothing comparable to that kind of massive influx of terribly sick, terribly infectious, terribly distraught patients that I can even conceive of,” she stated. She paused, then added: “Certainly nothing in standard American medicine … up until this point.”
Phillips now works within the ER at a hospital in Bellingham, Washington, and is seeing the toll of one other infectious illness — this time on her personal group.
While COVID-19 isn’t as lethal as Ebola, Phillips is drawing on her experiences in Africa to assist different nurses address the unprecedented worry and uncertainty of a pandemic now killing doctors and nurses on the front lines.
From Ebola To COVID-19
Phillips stated she wasn’t stunned the novel coronavirus got here to the United States, however the failure to guard well being care staff has shocked her. Across the nation, many have resorted to reusing masks and wrapping themselves in makeshift robes, like garbage bags with holes cut in them.
“I had better personal protective gear in West Africa by a long shot,” she stated.
Like many nurses, Phillips is having to make tools like N95 masks last more as her hospital tries to preserve provides.
In mid-March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a set of methods for well being care staff confronted with a scarcity of non-public protecting tools (PPE) and a surge in sufferers. As a final resort, the CDC recommends a bandana or scarf within the place of a medical-grade face masks.
This was the second, Phillips stated, that she and lots of different nurses realized “they were on their own.”
“Our government, they had nothing else to offer us,” she stated. “That has affected morale in this country unimaginably.”
Nurses now speak in confidence to Phillips. They ship her messages or pull her apart to ask: Is it OK to be afraid? To contemplate not displaying up for work? She doesn’t hesitate to reply.
“It’s really important that we continue to tell them that they have nothing to be guilty about, that they are not lesser nurses because of it,” she stated. “Were we adequately supplied and protected, the terror would be much less.”
The Making Of An Ebola Nurse
When the Ebola disaster emerged, Phillips was keen to enroll.
“It wasn’t even necessarily a conscious decision,” she stated. “It was almost this frenetic drive of … ‘I can do this work, send me, I can help.’”
She had already labored as a nurse abroad. She did surgical journeys to Guatemala and traveled to the Philippines after a storm to offer emergency medical support.
In the summer season of 2014, simply after a brand new nephew she was excited to fulfill was born, she contacted each group she may discover which may ship her to West Africa to deal with Ebola sufferers.
When she arrived in West Africa, the humanitarian support nonprofit International Medical Corps educated her to navigate the risks of Ebola. She discovered to not cross her arms or contact her face, and the exact solution to take off the hooded swimsuit and knee-high rubber boots.
“We didn’t do half-measures. You protected your staff at all costs,” she stated.
But she additionally discovered generally you may’t management what’s about to occur, like when a girl, stricken with Ebola, collapsed within the close by market. Phillips was informed the group would seemingly kill the affected person if the hospital didn’t get her instantly.
“The fear was so incredible … so overwhelming in the community,” she stated.
Phillips had no ambulances. She discovered what seemed to be an outdated ice truck and headed to the market. They found the lady trying very sick.
“She saw us and she tried to run,” stated Phillips. “One of my national staff members literally reached out and grabbed her by the arm.”
They have been capable of persuade her to come back again to the hospital for remedy.
Other instances, Phillips recalled, the sufferers ended up being the medical colleagues working at her facet. She watched one nurse she knew get taken out of the ambulance after she had contracted Ebola.
A graveyard down the highway from the Port Loko Ebola Treatment Unit that Martha Phillips labored at, in northwestern Sierra Leone. Patients that died on the Ebola Treatment Unit, in their very own properties, or on the hospital on the town have been buried within the cemetery.
“That was one of my breaking moments,” she stated. “I was just so tired of people who wanted so badly to help their own country and help their people being killed by this disease. It felt unfair and it feels unfair now, too.”
Health care staff are at increased threat of an infection from the coronavirus than the final inhabitants. Already within the U.S., dozens of them have died.
Phillips stated individuals who deal with COVID-19 sufferers carry a horrible foresight. They know precisely what may occur if they’re those who find yourself within the ICU, on a ventilator.
“It is a nightmare,” she stated. “Should we become sick, we know what our death will look like.”
It’s a sense that reminds Phillips of one other chilling second on the Ebola remedy unit. She remembers a affected person sitting on the bedside and lifting up the sting of a fantastically patterned skirt.
“She had clamshell bruises appearing across her legs,” Phillips stated, referring to a telltale signal of the hemorrhagic fever. They locked eyes. “She knew that’s how she was going to die. No one should have to experience that.”
These moments are with Phillips once more, within the ER.
That doesn’t cease her from going to work and treating her sufferers. But she additionally tells any nurse or physician who comes in the hunt for recommendation that the reward for serving to others ought to by no means be your personal life.
“The most important person is yourself, period, full stop, the end,” she stated. “Because if you die, you will not be able to take care of anyone else.”
Over the weekend, with circumstances slowing down in Washington, Phillips determined her assist was wanted elsewhere. She received on a airplane and flew to New York to assist out at a hospital there.
This story is a part of a partnership that features NPR and Kaiser Health News.