When Dr. Craig Spencer woke up in a New York City hospital in October and learned that he was suffering from ebola, he had a strange reaction: he breathed “a sigh of relief.”
The emergency room doctor, who’d recently returned from five weeks spent volunteering with Doctors Without Borders treating ebola patients in Guinea, tells New York magazine in a new interview that, “It doesn’t make sense, but this moment I was fearing had arrived – I could stop worrying about it now.”
Spencer, 33, became N.Y.C’s first ebola patient six days after returning from Africa. In the hours after his call to the New York Health Department to report his illness, a frenzied chain of events followed that included his apartment door being disassembled by FDNY medics, his name being leaked to the press and his fiancée, Morgan Dixon, being served a 21-day quarantine order.
While Spencer had carefully monitored himself for symptoms every day since his return, his actions during his five non-symptomatic days in New York – attempting to get back to a normal life by eating and seeing friends around the city – were characterized as reckless. “My activities before I was hospitalized were widely reported and highly criticized,” he wrote in an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine. “People feared riding the subway or going bowling because of me.”
While the media scrutinized his movements and personal life, Spencer experienced the best of American healthcare. His treatment at Bellevue Hospital was a stark contrast to what he had been able to offer ebola patients in West Africa. “Whereas in Guinea I took care of 30 patients, in the U.S., 30 doctors took care of me,” he said.
After 19 days of treatment, Spencer was discharged from the hospital. He used the media’s continued interest in his health to draw attention to the crisis that raged on in West Africa.
In March, he returned to Guinea where he used his experience to advise on ebola treatments. “I needed to go back for this bookend closure – for both Morgan and me,” he told the magazine. While there, Spencer returned to Gueckedou to attend the closing ceremony of an ebola treatment unit as the city hadn’t seen an ebola case in months. “When I was there before, at the height of the outbreak, people weren’t touching at all,” he said. “When I came back, teenage boys and girls were holding hands on the street. Love had come back. Life had resumed.”