Dallas Nurse Amber Vinson: How I Survived Ebola


Alone in an isolation unit at Emory University Hospital, Amber Vinson was severely dehydrated, sleeping restlessly and barely able to get out of bed. Knowing her colleague Nina Pham, 26, was battling the same deadly Ebola virus in another hospital, “I thought one of us wasn’t going to make it,” Vinson, 29, tells People. “I thought I might not survive. I would pray, ‘Lord, give me strength to make it through this.’ ”

Today Vinson is chatting cheerfully over a plate of waffles at a diner across from Texas Health Presbyterian hospital in Dallas, where she, a registered nurse, contracted Ebola while caring for patient Thomas Eric Duncan. Flanked by her mom, Debra Berry, 50, and fiancé Derrick Markray, 30, Vinson is upbeat—and grateful her fears weren’t realized. “Coming so close to death makes you think differently,” she says. “I’ve never appreciated life as much as I do now.”

Still, her world has been upended by the ordeal. The apartment she and Markray shared has been torn apart, her prized possessions—including her diamond engagement ring—confiscated by workers in hazmat gear. She tires easily and gets short of breath, and she and her loved ones are still shaken. “This humbled us,” says Markray, a former Arena Football player. “It reminded us tomorrow is not promised.”

For Vinson, it all started Sept. 30, the day she was assigned to the night shift for Duncan. “I could have refused, but if it wasn’t going to be me, it was going to be one of my coworkers,” Vinson says. “My patient needed my help.” She has no idea how she contracted the virus –”I had on multiple layers of gloves and booties”– and was devastated when she learned Duncan, 42, had died Oct. 8. “We did everything we could,” she says.

Almost as painful: the criticism of a trip home to Akron she took over Columbus Day weekend. At that point not symptomatic (she was taking her temperature frequently), Vinson checked in with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through a contact at Dallas County Health and Human Services and was given the all clear to fly there and back. (A spokeswoman there confirms her account.) Experts say Ebola is contagious only through contact with the bodily fluids of a symptomatic patient. Still, after learning in Ohio that Pham had tested positive, Vinson canceled plans to go to church and a bridal show. Comments on her alleged carelessness “were hurtful,” Vinson says. “I know the science. I wouldn’t put hundreds of people at risk. And what happened? No one [on the flights] got it.”

Vinson, of course, would in fact be diagnosed with Ebola two days after she returned and had reported a temperature of 100.3. Her memories of the worst days are hazy. Severe gastrointestinal illness sent her hobbling to the bathroom dozens of times, leaving her so dehydrated that suited-up nurses couldn’t find a usable vein for an intravenous drip. Instead, Vinson drank several liters of an electrolyte solution to give her body a chance to fight off a virus for which there is no definitive medical cure. Providing fluids was essential: Ebola deaths generally occur once dehydration has weakened the body to the point of organ failure. Luckily, as Vinson’s case was caught in the early stages, quick action was successful.

These days Vinson is back to planning her May 2015 wedding and furnishing a new apartment. Though she lost a lot in the cleanup, she still has one possession intact: her wedding gown, which was at her mother’s house when she fell ill. She’s thrilled to have it, of course, but knows she has something even more precious. “It isn’t about stuff,” she says. “It’s about family. It’s about love.”

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