Nightmare month for Ebola nurses

Story highlights

  • John Sutter: Nurses are the heroes of the Ebola epidemic
  • He says hospitals and governments must do more to protect them
  • Sutter says some U.S. hospitals seem better equipped to deal with Ebola than others
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them.
Take, for example, this list of allegations, from National Nurses United, about how a Dallas hospital mishandled an Ebola patient who had traveled to West Africa.
John D. Sutter
The group, according to a CNN report, says the hospital:
• Failed to give nurses "hands-on" training.
• Allowed hazardous waste to pile up to the ceiling.
• And gave nurses protective gear that left their necks exposed, unless -- and this is truly astounding -- they wrapped their necks with medical tape.
"We take compliance very seriously," a Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital spokesman, Wendell Watson, told CNN. "We have numerous measures in place to provide a safe working environment, including mandatory annual training and a 24-7 hotline and other mechanisms that allow for anonymous reporting."
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Nurses and other health workers on the front lines of Ebola face greater risks in West Africa, where news reports indicate volunteers are using improvised masks and suits to try to protect themselves from the often-deadly virus. It's killed more than 4,400 people, according to the World Health Organization, including 100 health workers in Liberia.
That country says it needs 80,000 body bags and nearly 990,000 protective suits in order to adequately fight the epidemic, according to NBC News.
And they face gruesome scenes as they combat the disease.
"We recently had a teenage girl bleed to death over two days of IV-site oozing. Sounds easy to fix, right? Pressure dressing, elevation, blah blah," Bridget Mulrooney, a 36-year-old American nurse, who is working in Liberia, recently wrote for The Guardian.
"Sorry, that's not how things work in an Ebola unit. You do all the normal interventions but a 20-gauge needle hole in a hand can slowly and fully drain the life source out of someone. Walking into a room that is covered in blood, finding a semiconscious girl face down on a bed pooling with barely congealed blood is hard. It's harder the second day when you know all your efforts couldn't slow that life destruction. I cleaned her up, and put her in a pair of still-tagged jeans. She half smiled and took some medicines. I won't forget her smile. Nor her soft moans as her body was fading away."
Yet, they continue to show up for work -- today, tomorrow and the next -- knowing that they are on the front line of efforts to contain a disease that could spread dramatically.
"As health-care professionals, this is what we have trained for," Susan M. Grant, the chief nurse at Emory Healthcare, who was involved in treating Ebola patients there, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post on August 6. "People often ask why we would choose to care for such high-risk patients. For many of us, that is why we chose this occupation -- to care for people in need. ... As human beings, we all hope that if we were in need of superior health care, our country and its top doctors would help us get better.
"We can either let our actions be guided by misunderstandings, fear and self-interest, or we can lead by knowledge, science and compassion. We can fear, or we can care."
We owe them some care -- and recognition -- in return.
Anyone following the headlines knows that's not been happening everywhere. While some hospitals, like those at Emory University and the University of Nebraska, which have successfully treated Ebola patients without further infections, appear well-equipped and trained to handle Ebola, others seem not to be. Many health workers are frightened a lack of hospital preparedness is putting them at unnecessary risk of infection.
"This month has been a nightmare, frankly, for nurses across the nation," RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, said on a conference call Wednesday. She added: "What happened in Dallas could happen anywhere."
What happened in Dallas, of course, is that two health workers -- Amber Vinson and Nina Pham -- became infected with Ebola after treating a patient who had traveled West Africa, which has borne the brunt of the disease's impact.
These nurses aren't complaining.
They're asking for our help.
By failing to give it to them, governments and hospitals risk marginalizing this essential workforce. That puts us all at greater risk for contracting this disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has promised more training for health workers. "A single infection in a health care worker is unacceptable," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden told reporters. "And what we're doing at this point is looking at everything we can do to minimize that risk so those that are caring for her do that safely and effectively."
Let's hope so.
The safety of the nurses -- and all of us -- depends on it.