It has become a running joke that when important people mess up in some way, they look for a lowly staffer to take the blame and be fired. The supposedly incompetent intern is usually fingered as the course of the mistake and made the hapless victim of this strategy but any underling will do. Since few care what the lower-ranking people say and thus they have no voice, this charge tends to stick.
The same thing seems to have happened with the recent Ebola cases. Initial reports blamed the nurses involved for the fact that the disease was not limited to the case of Thomas Eric Duncan, the man who returned from Liberia and later died at a Texas hospital. Why the seriousness of his condition and his travel to Liberia had not been flagged earlier, why two nurses became infected, and why one of them was allowed to take a commercial flight, were all argued over and hospital and CDC officials initially pointed to laxity on the part of the nurses involved, for not properly reporting Duncan’s travel history, not taking proper precautions to protect themselves, and recklessly traveling.
But Wade Goodwyn reports in each case the nurses had behaved strictly professionally and were blameless. And nurses are furious at being scapegoated once again.
“Well, see the thing is you have to look at the culture of most hospitals,” said Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, who has been a registered nurse for 43 years.
“Whenever they’re trying to assign blame it always it ends up down at the nurses’ level or other health care worker,” she said. “That is not unusual for that to happen. So we weren’t surprised; we were just angry.”
I have a friend who started out as a nurse. But she was so infuriated by the way that the large female nursing staff were treated by the largely male physicians, even though nurses were the people delivering the bulk of the care to patients, that she went to medical school and became a doctor herself.
Kaci Hickox, a nurse who returned to the US after working for Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone, reports than upon her return she was treated like a criminal, compounded by the fact that the forehead temperature scanners mistook her flushed face as having a fever when she did not. She is now under a mandatory 21-day quarantine even though she has no symptoms of the disease and has in fact tested negative for it.
The nurses are in the front line of medical care. There are the ones with the patients all the time. They deserve a lot more respect than they get. West Africa needs a lot of professional people to help treat the disease. As Hickox says,
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.
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.
It was the hardest night of my life. I watched a young girl die in a tent, away from her family.
With few resources and no treatment for Ebola, we tried to offer our patients dignity and humanity in the face of their immense suffering.
The epidemic continues to ravage West Africa. Recently, the World Health Organization announced that as many as 15,000 people have died from Ebola. We need more health care workers to help fight the epidemic in West Africa. The U.S. must treat returning health care workers with dignity and humanity.
Will medical professionals be discouraged from going to help because of the panic-stricken reactions of people upon their return? As Hickox says, “I am scared about how health care workers will be treated at airports when they declare that they have been fighting Ebola in West Africa. I am scared that, like me, they will arrive and see a frenzy of disorganization, fear and, most frightening, quarantine…. 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?”