When Amber Vinson, a nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, learned she would be caring for a man who had contracted Ebola, “I was very nervous,” she says.
But Vinson, 29, who worked the night shift while fellow nurse Nina Pham, 26, worked days caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, did everything she could to save the stricken Liberian man.
“I went in there and he was my patient,” Vinson told PEOPLE on Wednesday. “He needed my help so I did what I had to do.”
In one of her first interviews since contracting – and surviving – the deadly virus, Vinson opened up about caring for Duncan, her physical and emotional ordeal after falling ill herself and her frustration with public criticism suggesting that she had been less than careful in the days leading up to her diagnosis.
A Nurse’s Duty
It all started the night of Sept. 28, when Duncan, 42, who had flown to Dallas from Liberia after helping care for a pregnant woman stricken with Ebola, was admitted to Texas Health Presbyterian. He would become the first person on U.S. soil to be diagnosed with the virus.
Vinson says she “couldn’t sleep the night before they diagnosed him with Ebola. I really thought, ‘Is the first patient in America [with Ebola] really going to be our patient?’ ”
The next day, Vinson learned she would be assigned to Duncan.
“They told everyone to go downstairs except for me and one other nurse,” Vinson tells PEOPLE. “They gave us a crash-course education: This is what you have to wear, this is how you take it on and off.”
Though Vinson wore protective gear the hospital had issued her, she worried about contracting the virus.
“I would go to sleep but dream about work and about him and what I had done the night before,” she says. “The entire time I was checking my temperature and hoping I didn’t have a fever or any symptoms.”
Learning of Duncan’s death on Oct. 8, Vinson was distraught. “It was a loss. You make connections with patients,” she says.
She was also scared and homesick. She decided to take a trip to Cleveland over Columbus Day weekend– that she had been planning for months – to see her mom and go shopping for bridesmaids’ dresses with some of her bridesmaids. Vinson and fiancé Derrick Markray are to be married next year.
A Controversial Trip
Much would be made later of Vinson’s trip, with critics saying Vinson was careless in traveling after being exposed to Ebola.
But Vinson says she had been checking her temperature twice a day leading up to the trip and that the Centers for Disease Control gave her permission to travel. She flew to Cleveland feeling healthy, she says, and felt great when she landed.
“I hung out with my mom and her dog, and we ordered pizza and relaxed,” Vinson says. “The next day, I went out to the bridal store with some of my bridesmaids and we had a great time.”
But on Sunday, she started getting texts from her co-workers: Colleague Nina Pham, who had the day shift with Duncan, had been diagnosed with Ebola. Vinson worried about her colleague – and began to grow more concerned for herself.
“Nina is a great nurse,” Vinson says. “Everything she learned during her day shift she taught us for the night shift. But I still felt totally fine.”
Vinson says criticism of her trip “has been very frustrating – people saying I shouldn’t have set foot on the plane and that I put everyone at risk. It’s hurtful. I didn’t have any symptoms. If these people really knew me, they wouldn’t say those things.”
To date, there have been no reported cases of passengers on Vinson’s flight contracting Ebola.
The day she flew back to Texas, Oct. 13, she says, Vinson checked her temperature five times. It was only a full day after she landed in Dallas, on Oct. 14, that she found she had a temperature reading of 100.3.
She reported it and was told to go to the hospital. “I was hoping it was the flu,” she says.
At the hospital, Amber’s fever continued to rise. When she began having gastrointestinal symptoms, she knew this was no ordinary bug.
“I cried, and right then and there I knew I had Ebola,” she says. A doctor confirmed the diagnosis.
“Even when he told me I had it, it’s like I didn’t hear it,” she says. “Because you don’t want to hear that you have Ebola.”
She called her mother and fiancé to break the news. Her mother, Debra Berry, tried to stay strong. “I was sitting next to Derrick, and I saw one big tear hang from his eye and fall,” Berry tells PEOPLE. “I rubbed his back and then I turned around and cried.”
Her Friend Nina
Vinson was transported to an isolation unit at Emory University Medical Center on Oct. 15. Berry, who was watching on TV news, recalls seeing her daughter walking onto the plane looking like “this small yellow astronaut” in protective gear.
“I got onto the plane and the entire inside was lined in plastic,” Vinson says. “It was very lonely. No one was sitting by my side even though I’m sure they weren’t too far off. I was very uncomfortable.”
Shortly after arriving at the hospital, she got worse. That time, she says, was a blur.
“I don’t remember much from the days I felt awful,” she says. “I didn’t know if I would survive. Whenever I had those feelings, I would think of my family and pray.
“When I felt better, I was able to Skype with family and friends. I had a few family members that could come visit me but I could only talk to them through glass and a telephone.
She and Pham, who was being treated at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, supported each other from afar. “We would text back and forth and say to each other, ‘Do good on your lab work today!’ and ‘How are you feeling?’ We would encourage each other,” Vinson says.
“She told me she needed one more negative to be free of Ebola, and I said, ‘You can do it.’ She did the same for me.” Pham was released from the hospital on Oct. 24 and is back home, reunited with her beloved dog, Bentley.
Grateful to Be Alive
Vinson still becomes tired easily, but with each day she gains more energy and is slowly feeling better.
A good friend of the family created a GoFundMe page to help Vinson and her family.
Meanwhile, she will never forget the night she was allowed to leave the hospital’s isolation unit. A nurse took her outside and they sat on a bench.
“I took in the sounds and smells and I heard crickets,” she says. “I saw the stars and felt the night wind. It just gave me a greater appreciation for things that can annoy you in life, like cricket sounds.”
“But it’s like, ‘Wow, when you can’t hear it for so many days, and you’re secluded from everyone you know and love, you suddenly appreciate the crickets.'”
For more from Vinson and her family, pick up the newest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday