Kent Brantly, 33, was thrust into the international spotlight recently when he became the first U.S. doctor infected with Ebola while working at a missionary hospital in Liberia. He recovered after being evacuated and treated in Atlanta.
Now Brantly is working to draw more attention to the worsening outbreak in West Africa. This week, he testified on Capitol Hill and met with President Obama. He also stopped by The Washington Post, where he spoke about his experience and tried to dispel notions about the dangers of working in an Ebola ward. Brantly said he suspects he got infected while treating patients in the hospital’s emergency room, not while working in the Ebola isolation ward.
He said he and other medical workers found the isolation unit a safe and meaningful place to work. His comments have been edited lightly for clarity:
I have to tell you that if I had a choice of working in the isolation unit, or working in [the normal part of a] hospital during the middle of an Ebola outbreak, I’d choose the isolation unit every time.
You are provided with all the personal protective equipment you need; you know that every patient you’re going to see is at least suspected of Ebola, if not confirmed to have it. But in the hospital, you have to look at every single patient and say, “Should I think you have Ebola or not?”
You can’t wear that suit all day long, every day, for lots of reasons. Because it’s so hot. Because you would get dehydrated. But also because it’s terrifying to people. Anytime we would have to go out to collect a patient who had Ebola and was sitting out in front of the hospital, it terrified people. We even had patients whose families would grab them, throw them in the taxi while they were waiting for us to put on our suits. They would run away.
People say, “Oh, well those careless doctors [who got Ebola], they just weren’t using enough protection for themselves.” We’re professionals. We used all the protection that we deem necessary for the circumstance. And when you have somebody you’re suspecting has Ebola, you put on everything. But you can’t put on everything for every patient. It’s a waste of resources; it’s impractical; it’s not safe, and it isn’t good for the patients.
We were safe. We worked together as a team. We checked each other. We had all the right equipment. We taped our gloves. Every centimeter of skin was covered. When [workers] came out of the unit, we reviewed all of that and we asked, “Do you feel safe? Do you feel like you were compromised in any way while we were in there? Did you see anybody else who was compromised?” They would say, “No. It was fine.”
And they wanted to work there, and they tried to tell their co-workers who hadn’t worked in the unit, “Hey, it’s not bad.” It’s hot — that was the biggest complaint. It’s hard work, and it’s hot.
Everybody was resistant to work in the [isolation] unit the first time. They were scared. That makes sense; it’s natural. But those people who worked in the unit, they saw:
I’m not facing a terrifying disease. I’m taking care of a person. This person is somebody’s sister. This person is somebody’s mother. This person speaks my same dialect. They saw that.