October 25, 2014

Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo held a joint press conference on Friday to announce that any health care worker returning from West Africa would be subject to a mandatory 21-day quarantine upon arrival at airports in their states.

Their decision was placed into effect without any notice to people on arriving flights, which left one exhausted nurse wondering why she was being treated like a criminal.

Kaci Hickox arrived in New Jersey yesterday, tired, exhausted and drained after spending a month treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, only to be isolated and whisked away without an explanation. She told her story in the Dallas Morning News:

I was tired, hungry and confused, but I tried to remain calm. My temperature was taken using a forehead scanner and it read a temperature of 98. I was feeling physically healthy but emotionally exhausted.

Three hours passed. No one seemed to be in charge. No one would tell me what was going on or what would happen to me.

I called my family to let them know that I was OK. I was hungry and thirsty and asked for something to eat and drink. I was given a granola bar and some water. I wondered what I had done wrong.

Four hours after I landed at the airport, an official approached me with a forehead scanner. My cheeks were flushed, I was upset at being held with no explanation. The scanner recorded my temperature as 101.

The female officer looked smug. “You have a fever now,” she said.

I explained that an oral thermometer would be more accurate and that the forehead scanner was recording an elevated temperature because I was flushed and upset.

I was left alone in the room for another three hours. At around 7 p.m., I was told that I must go to a local hospital. I asked for the name and address of the facility. I realized that information was only shared with me if I asked.

Eight police cars escorted me to the University Hospital in Newark. Sirens blared, lights flashed. Again, I wondered what I had done wrong.

I had spent a month watching children die, alone. I had witnessed human tragedy unfold before my eyes. I had tried to help when much of the world has looked on and done nothing.

At the hospital, I was escorted to a tent that sat outside of the building. The infectious disease and emergency department doctors took my temperature and other vitals and looked puzzled. “Your temperature is 98.6,” they said. “You don't have a fever but we were told you had a fever.”

After my temperature was recorded as 98.6 on the oral thermometer, the doctor decided to see what the forehead scanner records. It read 101. The doctor felts my neck and looked at the temperature again. “There’s no way you have a fever,” he said. “Your face is just flushed.”

My blood was taken and tested for Ebola. It came back negative.

I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal. Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?

I recalled my last night at the Ebola management center in Sierra Leone. I was called in at midnight because a 10-year-old girl was having seizures. I coaxed crushed tablets of Tylenol and an anti-seizure medicine into her mouth as her body jolted in the bed.

Treating health care workers like criminals is not the answer. Are we going to have no-fly lists for workers who voluntarily put their lives on the line to help the less fortunate in a country thousands of miles from here? While it might make sense to put some restrictions on what they can do in their first 21 days back, it is wrong to treat people the way Hickox was treated.

I think both governors should be held to account for this. The right-wing demonization of health care professionals is odious and should stop now. I donated to Doctors Without Borders after Dr. Spencer became ill, mostly because of the overblown judgmental rhetoric rained down on him for daring to go bowling when he didn't feel sick or have a fever.

It's easy to sit in a bubble and pretend we don't have to care about what happens in other countries where poverty means they can't get decent health care for a terrible virus. But to slam those people who willingly go anyway? That's just hideous.

Update: Kaci Hickox is more than a nurse. She's an expert in epidemiology.


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