Turning the Tide on Ebola

By: Calvin W. Edwards, CAPT, U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps

Before accepting their agreements to work in Liberia in a mobile hospital for Ebola patients, I emailed each of the 68 Commissioned Corps officers of the U.S. Public Health Service that they would face danger, needed to accept certain risks, and that they would have to perform under extremely austere conditions.

Capt. Edwards

Calvin W. Edwards, CAPT, U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps

Turns out, if anything, I may have underestimated the hardship.

Initially we lived 12 to a room in two-bedroom cabanas that were intended for four people and had ”septic” issues (sewage backups and overflowing toilets) to boot. We ate MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) intended for troops in combat. Six weeks into the two-month deployment, we were moved into tents next to the mobile hospital, about 20 officers per tent.

We worked 12-hour shifts in 90 degree heat and 90 percent humidity, often wearing head-to-toe heavy layers of plastic gear that left us soaked in sweat within minutes. A single slip in protocol could expose us to a deadly virus as we worked with vomiting patients who could defecate up to three gallons of diarrhea a day and could quickly dehydrate.

The Payoff

But when the first patient emerged with a clean bill of health, the hardships were forgotten.

A Liberian physician’s assistant, a man in his 30s, was the first to walk out with a certificate documenting that two tests showed him to be virus-free.

Ebola Survivor

U.S. Public Health Service officers celebrate as a Liberian man adds his handprint to a “survivors wall.” Each patient who overcame Ebola after treatment at the USPHS mobile hospital outside Monrovia was given a set of clothes and essentials and invited to mark their recovery with a handprint.

His family arrived like a chorus, singing, praising God, thanking America, jubilantly crying, and shouting, “He lived!”

This ex-patient became the first person to dip his hand in yellow paint and make an imprint on our “survivors’ wall.” Although total numbers have not yet been released, there were more handprints to come, and more patients survived than died.

Each patient who walked out confirmed that we were correct deciding to cross an ocean to help stop the spread of Ebola. To see a once desperately sick person recover and go home, knowing we had a part in that, was more satisfying than I can describe.

We were the first group of Public Health Service officers to move to the tents that were set up as a hospital in Liberia. Our group, which I commanded, included 24 women and 45 men. I had three weeks’ notice before flying out; some in our group had as little as five days to decide and be deployed.

Since our return, two more groups of Public Health Service officers have been deployed to the hospital built in a remote area about 1.5 hours from downtown Monrovia. The final group is still there.

The Mission

Our mission was to treat health care workers who contracted the Ebola virus. Before our arrival health care workers were leaving in droves, and the volunteer pool was drying up. The creation of our treatment facility helped turn the tide.

Liberia Compound

An aerial photo shows the mobile medical compound where Public Health Service Officers treat health care workers who contract Ebola.

The Liberian Ministry of Health told us that some health care workers were waiting until we had set up the facility before agreeing to come to Liberia. The fact we had a small part in increasing the pool of workers treating desperate patients was awesome. How often in our lives do we get a chance to do something so big?

On the other hand, one of our greatest stresses was how little we could do to help defeat the virus. Often the most we could do was keep people clean and hydrated while hoping their bodies would develop antibodies.

It was especially hard emotionally when we lost a patient at night. Because Ebola patients are most infective right after they succumb to the disease, we could not risk moving them over the dimly-lighted pathway to the morgue.

The Public Health Service officers were the only people working in the hospital. They performed every job, even those most unpleasant, and did it regardless of rank, exalted skills, or letters after their names. Yet all came away happy about the role they played.

For my part, I am both humbled and intensely proud of these men and women — of their skills, dedication, selflessness, ruggedness and resiliency. I wish all Americans could share some measure of my joy.

CAPT Edwards is a Public Health Service officer who serves in FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs. The U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps is made up of 6,500 public health professionals who provide leadership and clinical service roles within the federal government agencies to which they are assigned.

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