If anyone needed proof that the world is getting smaller, surely the Ebola crisis is convincing. My husband remembers studying about Ebola in medical school, when Ebola was a seemingly isolated virus found deep in the jungles of Africa. Today, it has ravaged thousands of people in West Africa as the CDC’s website makes clear: 926 deaths in Guinea, 1,281 deaths in Sierra Leone, 2,705 deaths in Liberia, 8 deaths in Nigeria. Despite these disturbing statistics, the one that scares us the most is this one: 1 death in the United States. Africa seemed so far away; how did this happen?
As we all know, the one death attributed to Ebola in the U.S. was of a Liberian man, Thomas Eric Duncan, who had direct contact with an Ebola patient. For us, as Texans, it was particularly frightening because the virus didn’t come here through New York City or Los Angeles; it entered the U.S. through Dallas. Whoa. That was way too close for comfort. But, we soon learned that the patient’s family and friends were quarantined and the Dallas hospital seemingly had things under control, although they made an error sending the poor man home before finally admitting him on his second visit to the E.R. Sadly, Mr. Duncan died and all was quiet…for about two days. Then, we learned that a young nurse who cared for him at the hospital was infected. Uh-oh. This could get bad quickly. My first thought was whether my daughter, who lives in Dallas, could possibly be at risk. I mentally listed all the people who may have been exposed: the ambulance drivers, the friends and family of Duncan, the children who attended school with the kids who had contact with him; the nurses, doctors and staff of the hospital. Before engaging in much more speculation, I remembered the CDC’s reassurance that the disease could be contacted only through exposure to bodily fluids, and questioned, only briefly, whether this was accurate, and, if so, how did that young nurse get sick? Before long, I received a text from another of my daughters, who lives in Alabama. “They identified the nurse who has Ebola, Nina Pham. I know her; she graduated from TCU with my class in 2010. So sad and scary.” Ok, this was getting really frightening. She sent another text a few hours later. A close friend had lunch with Nina just a day or two before she got sick; she was taking her temperature a few times a day. Oh my God; what was happening? This seemed truly unbelievable. What would happen next? The fear was ratcheting up when news broke that a second nurse who cared for Mr. Duncan was sick, and she’d flown on a commercial flight to Cincinnati and back to Dallas with a fever. 130 passengers were possibly exposed to Ebola. The following morning, I was awakened by a text from my daughter in Dallas, “Someone at my apartment has Ebola. I was just informed.” It was the second nurse, Amber Vinson. Unbelievable. Two of my daughters have some connection with the two people infected with Ebola in the United States. Dallas reporters and haz-mat teams swarmed her apartment complex. After receiving more information, my daughter confirmed the ill nurse’s apartment was not in the immediate vicinity of her first floor apartment. Everyone braced for what would come next. Thankfully, there were no additional reports of infected hospital workers in Dallas, and none of the friends and family of Duncan appeared ill. Both infected nurses have recovered, and my daughter’s friend has shown no symptoms. Another patient, a doctor, has brought Ebola into New York City from Guinea. His fiancee has been quarantined; he rode several subway trains and went bowling in Brooklyn before being diagnosed. A nurse who treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone was quarantined in a tent after flying into Newark, NJ. What news will break tomorrow?
My husband and I traveled to Dallas last weekend for a wedding. We spent time with our daughters and spoke to our daughter’s dear friend, who told us about the personal horror of learning of her possible exposure to this deadly disease. We all agreed that watching the Ebola situation unfold on our shores has been extremely disconcerting and sad. It’s disturbed our naiveté and shaken our confidence in our nation’s healthcare system and the Centers for Disease Control. How could we be so unprepared for Ebola when it finally did invade our shores? Why wasn’t the first case in Dallas, Mr. Duncan’s, handled with more attention, with more alarm, quite frankly? Sadly, it has turned into a political issue as well. It has exposed the fragility of human reason when faced with crisis; we know that Ebola is a scary disease, but it isn’t as contagious as the measles or the flu, which is transmitted through the air. Most importantly, it has exposed our lack of empathy with the thousands of fellow humans whose lives have been destroyed by this terrible virus. Officials insist that the way to manage an Ebola outbreak in this country is to assist in stopping it where it started, in Africa.
On Sunday, we attended Mass in Dallas, listening as the priest read the gospel, Matthew 22:34-40, which contains the two great commandments. In his homily, the pastor used a timely example to illustrate the second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He told us that the many dozens of family and friends of Thomas Duncan who had been removed from their homes and quarantined at an undisclosed location had been housed at a retreat center, hosted by the Archdiocese of Dallas. He stated that the bishop ran the unknown risk of doing so, because he recognized his Christian obligation to love others, and he encouraged us to go out and do the same. The congregation was silent, sitting in rapt attention. I thought about my behavior of the last few weeks. Blaming, cursing, accusing, ignoring science and promoting fear. I thought, for the first time, of the thousands of West African patients and families whose lives have been forever changed by Ebola and prayed for the courage to love my neighbors, even if they live on the other side of the world.