How Ebola prepared me for the COVID-19 pandemic 

I decided to write this note because I am grieving. I am grieving for those infected and affected by the coronavirus pandemic, of course. But the deepest grief I feel right now is for my fellow healthcare workers who I know will be going through their toughest days in the next few months. I hate that so many of you will be forced to go through this experience, whether you like it or not.

In November 2014, I traveled to Sierra Leone at the height of the Ebola epidemic to work in an isolation unit in Freetown. I would have never guessed that this experience would prepare me so well for today. No two disasters are ever the same, but I want to share with you some of the thoughts and emotions I felt before, during, and after my experience in the isolation unit in hopes that you realize that it’s not just you. I know what you’re feeling.

When I learned of the severe healthcare workforce shortage that resulted as the virus ravaged hospitals and clinics in West Africa, I felt a calling. I had no idea what I could offer them, but I knew I would do whatever was asked of me because I took an oath when I started my journey in medicine. I was scared, but my sense of duty quickly overrode my feelings.

Entering the fray, I felt like I was living in a dream world. The first day I donned my PPE to enter the isolation unit, I thought to myself, “this can’t be real.” I walked through the unit like I was filming a low budget film with a cell phone, my eyes capturing one scene at a time that I would later string together.

I was certain I was going to get Ebola. The night of my first shift in the isolation unit, I nearly scrubbed a layer of skin off in the shower because I felt like I was covered in virus. When I went back to the hospital the next day for my shift, I told my colleagues that I thought I had Ebola. They all laughed and said, “we did too.”

We felt removed and isolated from our friends and families. Not because we were thousands of miles away but because no one else could even begin to understand the amount of pain and suffering that we were witnessing every day. We felt like we only had each other.

In an epidemic that required social and physical distancing, we craved human touch. One night, after a month of being there and one too many beers, a colleague gave me a hug as we parted ways. We just stood there in each other’s arms in the middle of the street, and I swear I have never felt a hug as warm and as comforting as that one.

I felt robotic and devoid of emotions. Being in full PPE that reveals only your eyes, you become a mechanical creature. You smile, but no one can see your smile. You cry, and you can’t wipe your tears. Your job is to bag the bodies of those who died the shift before you and drag them into the makeshift morgue that is already full of body bags. You walk out to triage a patient that was brought to the hospital gates in your PPE, and everyone moves out of the way like you’re the harbinger of death. You turn the patient onto his back, and you know he is dead. The family members are wailing, and you want to hold them, tell them how sorry you are, to grieve with them – instead, you tell them to stay away from their dead son because a corpse is highly infectious. You feel numb.

We were forced to take time away from the unit every week. As we sat on the local beach eating fresh lobster with a cold beer, we all felt guilty about being there. We felt the need to rush back to the isolation unit where more folks were dying, and more colleagues were sweating in their PPE. It was like a gravitational pull back into the darkness. We would often try to make each other laugh, but then a tiny voice in your head would criticize you for making light of the situation. It took a while to give ourselves permission to have fun in the midst of devastation. This continued long after I left Sierra Leone.

I became accustomed to making impossible decisions in an imperfect setting.

We lost friends and colleagues to the disease. They were our fellow warriors who worked alongside us. It’s impossible to focus on work when your colleagues are fighting for their lives. But we had to, and we did. It hurt like hell.

When I returned home, I felt like a vector of disease. I carried a thermometer everywhere I went. With any little change to my body, I would check my temperature and lock myself in a room just in case. I advised friends and family to stay away from me until my 21-day quarantine period was over. Some folks refused to hug me even after that. Some of my former colleagues were uninvited from weddings and birthday parties. The feeling of isolation intensified.

I came to appreciate so many of the things I took for granted, and most of all, good health. I saw communities come together in ways that gave me so much hope while surrounded by utter desperation. I felt the warmth of human connection, even with social distancing, even with my full PPE.

And perhaps most importantly, I learned that I am a person who has the tenacity and grit to make it through the toughest of situations. That I am resilient. That we are resilient.

Jeri Sumitani is a physician assistant.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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