79: Person of the Year

79: Person of the Year

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

Person of the Year

God’s dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion.

~Desmond Tutu

“Ebola Healthcare Workers Are Dying Faster Than Their Patients” read the TIME headline on October 3, 2014. Forbes stated the following week, “Ebola Has Killed More Than 200 Doctors, Nurses and Other Healthcare Workers Since June,” citing that the two major countries affected were Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Sad. Frightening. But far away. In Africa. Far away, that was, until I received the phone call.

My son Paul had been working in a federal prison in California as a nurse practitioner when he was asked to become part of a Rapid Development Force (RDF) with the United States Public Health Service. USPHS is one of the seven active duty uniformed services; the other six are the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.) With USPHS he would join healthcare professionals sent to aid in situations such as natural diseases, world health crises, and to provide medical support for enormous crowds, like a presidential inauguration.

I was happy that Paul was part of this team, until the Ebola crisis hit.

The media reported that healthcare workers were being transported back to the States for treatment. Some lived; others didn’t. We watched and prayed for them as we learned more details about this little-known plague. Fear swept throughout the nation and signs began to appear asking those entering from certain countries to be denied access.

President Obama, at the request of the United Nations, ordered the Surgeon General of the U.S. to activate seventy workers in the USPHS to travel to Liberia to set up and treat healthcare workers infected with the Ebola virus. Paul was among those contacted. Of course he would go. Any of the seventy could have declined, yet none did. Paul’s group would be the first team sent.

After a weeklong stateside training by the Center for Disease Control in Aniston, Alabama, they would fly to Liberia on October 26th to begin their two-month mission.

It’s one thing to see disaster on the news, but another to realize that your son is going to put himself directly in harm’s way. “Be anxious for nothing,” I kept saying to myself, remembering Philippians 4:6, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” I tried.

On my way to prayer on Saturday morning, after a sleepless night, while waiting for the traffic signal to change. I sensed in my spirit that small voice. “Haven’t you been praying for these people?” I had. “Well, I’m trying to send them help.” I began to feel some peace.

Through the days that followed, I thought of Paul. He would continue his work at the prison until Friday, then have two days to prepare. He was told to update his will and insurance benefits, make funeral arrangements, purchase scrubs, mosquito netting… the list continued. As a single dad with grown sons, he lived alone in California. There would be no one there to say goodbye. My heart ached. I just couldn’t let that happen. Of course I flew to California.

Paul met me at the airport on Thursday evening and for the next two days we worked feverishly. By Sunday morning he was packed and ready. I snapped pictures of him as he hauled his two large bags toward his boarding gate. He didn’t look back.

The seventy volunteers that convened in Alabama included not only doctors and nurses, but lab technicians, photographers, scientists, writers, psychologists, chaplains, and engineers. For a week they learned safety procedures and practiced donning and doffing Hazmat suits for protection. The more the team learned, the more confident they felt.

But the somber headlines continued. A traveler from Liberia tested positive in Texas and died. The more news reports we heard, the more anxious our country became.

That Saturday we said our goodbyes over the phone. Paul was ready.

The team arrived in Liberia to find field hospitals set up by the military. Supplies began arriving and they stocked shelves. While recovering from jet lag and adjusting to the extreme heat and humidity, they met with Doctors Without Borders and were greeted by the Liberian President and the Minister of Health. President Obama called and spoke with the team and eventually the Secretary General of the UN toured the facility.

A week after being there, their first patient, a healthcare worker named Alvin, arrived. Paul led him from the ambulance to the makeshift hospital, started his IV, drew labs, and administrated medication.

Although these volunteers were more than 5,000 miles from home, the Internet, texting, and even FaceTime allowed us to feel like we were part of the action. The more we learned, the more our anxiety lessened.

We all celebrated when Alvin was released. When Paul’s team removed the protective gear from their faces, Alvin saw, for the first time, the caregivers who he had jokingly referred to as Spacemen. A ceremony was held and Alvin received a certificate declaring him to be Ebola free. Outside the tent a hand-painted makeshift board read, “Today I am Healed. Tomorrow I Return to Heal Another.” Each patient who survived would leave his or her handprint on the board. When Alvin became the third his family cheered. Soon he would return to his medical practice, immune to the virus, to treat his own Ebola patients.

Throughout the next several weeks the teams rotated shifts. Nurses and doctors worked sixteen hours, two hours in full protective garb with temperatures inside the uniform soaring to 115 degrees. Another three hours were spent rehydrating and sleeping.

More handprints were added to the board, each one representing another healthcare provider saved. Those who didn’t survive were photographed for their families, placed in body bags, and sent for burial.

A week before Paul’s team returned home, the second group of USPHS volunteers arrived to be trained. Already word had begun to spread to caregivers in neighboring African countries that help was nearby. With the news that they would have a place to go if they became infected, large numbers of healthcare workers once again returned to Liberia to fight this dreadful disease.

Ebola is no longer the lead story on the evening news. Ebola rates have dropped dramatically in Liberia, though it is far from cured.

The real heroes in this story are those men and women who daily train and serve both here and abroad, putting their lives at risk to serve others. No wonder TIME named these Ebola fighters their Person of the Year for 2014.

~Phyllis Bird Nordstrom

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