People With Ebola Are Better Than You

Every single person I can name who has had Ebola is a better person than me. And you. Every. Single. One.

Eric Duncan who died in Dallas, for instance.

At the heart of the Epidemic in Liberia he volunteered to carry his landlord’s pregnant daughter to a taxi so she might seek treatment. She was in the full-blown part of the disease, the stage where victims are most contagious and everyone knew it. When they arrived at the clinic there was not enough space and she was turned away. Eric Duncan then helped her get home where she would soon die.

He too later succumbed to the disease he contracted for his kindness, but not in a war-ravaged West African bare-bones infirmary where there were two dozen doctors for over four million people. No, after showing up with a fever at in a hospital in the “most advanced country in the world,” and telling medical staff he’d been in Liberia, they (we) gave him Tylenol and turned him away.

When he was finally admitted to a hospital days later with symptoms of the disease, as he began to succumb he implored the medical staff not to attempt to resuscitate him as not to risk any more lives. Our society then went on to fail at even the basic task of decontaminating his apartment, hiring a group called “The Clean Guys” to manage the task for which they were neither trained nor equipped.

According to his Fiance, Eric Duncan did not shun his Landlord’s sick daughter because Eric Duncan was a Christian. According to me he was a better person certainly than many of the most vocal citizens of the country where he died if we compare his behavior to the subsequent panic and demonizing directed toward a man who did nothing but display the highest of human values.

Would I have picked up the frail, coughing girl who was not my own child, when I knew all too well what her symptoms meant? Would I have carried her outside? Held her hair back while she vomited in the street? Would you have? I don’t know in my own case but we can for sure say that the Eric Duncan who doubted was overcome by the Eric Duncan who cared, and for such empathy he paid with his life.

And let us also not forget another case we can name: Nina Pham, 23 years old performing her sacred duty as a nurse. When I’m at work I’ll do everything I can to get out of an unpleasant task as banal as faxing because I’m that lame. Nina Pham, however, knowingly treated a man with an unspeakably terrible disease and she too was failed by our system that likes to boast of its prowess but routinely fails to support those we put in harm’s way.

Nina Pham could have called in sick. Nina Pham could have asked to have been reassigned. Nina Pham did neither of these things and while people in TV studios referred to those stricken with ebola in similar terms to plague rats, she treated a real human being and brought aid to the kind man who helped his landlord’s daughter in the taxi.

Nina Pham is better than me. And thankfully today she is better generally, declared free of the disease just last week.

The most recent case is Dr. Craig Spencer who went to Guinea with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). He’s been to hot spots all over the world helping people in need. I, in contrast, write a snarky blog and just yesterday exhausted a full half hour of my and other people’s lives complaining bitterly about those who don’t use Google Calendar when scheduling events.

Dr. Spencer is a better person than I am. He was, by the way, following protocols and when his body temperature, which he was monitoring twice as day as recommended, moved up just a single degree above normal he called MSF. They altered public health officials in New York who sent a specially equipped ambulance to get him to treatment. Our response to the disease, in regard to medical preparedness at least, has improved.

Dr. Spencer need not have not gone to Africa. He easily could have remained surrounded on every corner by pumpkin-spice lattes and gourmet cupcake shops, spending Sundays not in the dust of the developing world pushing back against hopelessness, but instead sipping twee little drinks out of mason jars at brunch on Amsterdam.  But, according to friends, that’s not who he is. His Fiance, a charity worker and now also in isolation said that she was grateful he is being treated here when so many around the world are left to die.

These are noble people. Every one. Their actions prove this.

Ebola preys on caregivers. It kills those who seek its victims with aid. Its trick is to make someone terribly ill in a place unprepared to manage its communicability and then infect those who get close enough to help. It’s like a sniper who with his first shot deliberately wounds rather than kills in order to create targets of the arriving medics . Ebola victims are those who, knowing this, choose to help anyway.

They are the best people among us.

… there was a sort of self-selecting process going on the whole time among all of the prisoners.  On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of friends, in order to save themselves.  We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know:  the best of us did not return.

–Viktor Frankl, Holocaust Survivor, Man’s Search for Meaning

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  1. Great post! I have been trying to explain this to friends and family and have usually failed miserably. Now I can just share this and maybe they will understand.

  2. Probably your best post to date. I have no patience with those who choose to ignore readily available facts and just indulge in wild speculation and panic based on the ravings of the ignorant.

  3. Stunningly beautiful writing, challenging and uplifting. Thank you, Jim Dowd

  4. Excellent writing and very true, the vast majority of healthcare workers would never consider their own vulnerability they do their job and feel it is a privilege to look after the sick. Yes I would have carried that pregnant women out because I am a nurse. I just wish to say to all the higher echelon quit blaming the nurses if they get sick, and stating that they must have done something wrong. It is not true just easier to blame. Look at the instruction and equipment that they are using is it effective enough. We have a job to do and are willing to do it. I started my career in 1964 and love it as much today as I did that first day, how many can say that. So instead of placing blame get off your high horses and find the solution while we continue to work in the trenches and front lines. Good luck to my fellow health care workers you do an incredible job every day, and like most of us you don’t ask for praise you just wish to see your patients get better and go home. I love you guys

  5. Amazing, thank you for this post

  6. Well said. So many go to places that most have never heard of and not for fame or glory. They go because they are called. They go to serve. They need our encouragement and support.

  7. Halifax, NS
    October 28, 2019

    I hope this letter finds its way to you. I came upon this posting of yours about Ebola from back in 2014 when I was going through some old computer files. Even though this printer won’t work much longer, I had to print it out and write to you. Hard to believe there was a day when we knew all the Ebola patients in the US, never mind Gloucester, by name.
    I remember in July or August of that summer I was talking to an canvaser from Doctors Without Borders outside my office in Boston. He told me that people were coming up to him and asking him why he wasn’t doing something to help people in the US. Hard to believe people could actually have thought Ebola was an African problem. Of course that was before Dallas, and New York, and St. Louis, and… well you know how it went from there.

    p.s. I still have nightmares about the “isolation” ward at Addison Gilbert. Thanks again for introducing me to KT. If she hadn’t been on the dock that day I don’t know if I could have gotten my family on that tuna boat that brought us to Canada. Good thing those guys had a sense of humor.

  8. Dammit, Jim, you’ve done it again: spot on, unequivocal arrow straight to the heart. Pass the tissues.

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