The Ebola Victims Their Brave Battle

Around the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital ICU, Nina Pham developed a reputation for delivering calm and compassionate care. Whether it was tuberculosis or the flu, the 26-year-old nurse was there for her patients. So when Thomas Eric Duncan was admitted to the Dallas hospital on Sept. 29 with the deadly Ebola virus, Pham—four years out of nursing school and knowing little of the disease beyond what she had studied in class and read about in the 1994 bestseller The Hot Zone—was tapped to be the Liberian man’s primary caretaker. “It wasn’t just her job,” a former classmate of Pham’s at Texas Christian University, Lacey Mabry, tells People. “It was her calling to help this person.” Even as Duncan’s condition deteriorated, Pham remained at his bedside, safe, or so she thought, in her protective gear. “She was essentially his only friend during those last days,” fellow nurse Jennifer Joseph told the Los Angeles Times. Little more than a week after Duncan’s death on Oct. 8, Pham too lay in a hospital bed—the first American to contract the disease on U.S. soil—wiping away tears and trying to hold a smile as, captured on video, she managed four quiet words to the hazmat-suited medical duo in her isolation room: “I love you guys.”

Now Pham and a second nurse who cared for Duncan, Amber Vinson, 29, are fighting for their lives against a disease that has gone from a remote horror to a source of real fear. Although thousands of West Africans have died from Ebola (see box), the epidemic was unknown in this country until Liberian-based American missionaries Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol were flown to the United States this summer after contracting the disease while caring for the afflicted. The pair were successfully treated, but concerns about Ebola’s spread increased when Duncan, who reportedly had been caring for an infected pregnant woman in his home country, unwittingly carried the virus to America after flying to Dallas Sept. 20. Even then the Centers for Disease Control’s Dr. Tom Frieden reassured Americans, “There is no doubt in my mind that we will stop it here.”

The fragile sense of calm began to shatter when Pham and Vinson tested positive for the virus, apparent victims of inadequate hospital safety procedures (see box). And when news broke that Vinson, with permission from the CDC, had flown on a Frontier Airlines jet to spend Columbus Day weekend wedding-planning with her mom, a kind of hysteria took hold. Fueling fears were frenzied reports that told of hundreds of Frontier fliers being monitored for symptoms, school closings, a Carnival Cruise ship passenger and Texas Health Presbyterian employee confined to her stateroom and even a Nigerian man vomiting and dying on an Arik Air flight from Lagos to New York City. The antidote for such panic may simply be time and the facts; the cruise ship passenger did not have Ebola, nor did the Nigerian man. Most reassuringly, in Dallas, some 48 people who had come into contact with Duncan, including the fiancée and children with whom he had shared a tiny apartment, were given the all-clear after passing the 21-day mark of potential contagion. “The fact remains, Ebola is not that easy to get,” says Anne Rimoin, founder of the UCLA-DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) Research Program. “I would be very surprised if you hear about more people here getting it.”

Still, Pham and Vinson are far from out of the woods. Pham is being treated in a special unit at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.; her colleague is at Emory University Medical Center in Atlanta. Loved ones and fellow health-care workers have been particularly stung by suggestions online and on social media that the women ignored precautions. Relatives of Vinson, who volunteered to care for Duncan, issued a statement noting that the young woman a high school friend calls “polite and caring” checked not once but three times with the CDC before flying. Reports that “she ignored any … protocols recommended to her are patently untrue,” the statement said. Adds friend Emilia Sykes: “She’s infected for doing something so selfless. We should be applauding her courage.”

Others are showing bravery. Now on the mend, Kent Brantly, the first American infected, donated blood to Pham as well as to Dr. Richard Sacra and NBC News freelance cameraman Ashoka Mukpo, both of whom contracted the virus in Liberia (they are also recovering). Mukpo’s friend Katie Meyler, who runs a nonprofit in Liberia, says he’s growing stronger every day: “He is a fighter and he will get through everything.” A seventh patient, yet unnamed, was released from Emory Oct. 20. Still, the road back to health is hardly smooth or easy. Sacra, who went home from the hospital Sept. 25, says he gets easily fatigued and needs physical therapy to build back muscle. “I used to be able to ride a bike 25 miles, no problem. I think now I’d be lucky if I could make it a mile and a half,” he says. Writebol has been out of the hospital since Aug. 19 but recalls vividly the pain of Ebola eating away at her tissue: “Just to have my husband put his hand on my leg, it was excruciating pain. Now there’s good days and there are some bad days.”

At press time, Pham’s condition was stable; Vinson’s health status remained confidential. Both have the advantage of youth and good health at the time of infection. They also have the support of their loved ones—though it must be given at a medically safe distance. “Their lives are upside down right now,” says Tom Ha, educational director at Our Lady of Fatima, the Catholic church in Fort Worth where Pham’s family worships. Whatever happens, Pham’s life in Texas won’t be the same: Health workers have emptied her apartment of possessions that might carry the virus; all of her clothes and a Tory Burch handbag she recently splurged on with bonus pay have been incinerated. Even Bentley, her adored Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, is being cared for by the city of Dallas, which has begun virus testing on him after tweeting assurances that he’s a “happy camper,” with a comfy bed and new toys. Meanwhile, Ha has been texting her mother, Diana, about a fund-raiser to help with hotel bills as the family keeps vigil in Maryland and hopes for her safe return. “Right now she’s letting Nina rest,” he says. “She asks that we continue to pray.”

Keep an eye on for ongoing coverage of the Ebola story.


Something Special goes here about this week’s edition.

Updated by Tara Fowler
Related Articles