Ebola outbreak: Don’t blame the nurse for infection

The director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia apologized for implying that the nurse in Texas was responsible for her own infection with the deadly Ebola virus. This comes less than two weeks after hospital officials from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital and other prominent officials blamed a different nurse for releasing the patient with Ebola from the emergency department possibly causing an Ebola outbreak.

Read my post from last week explaining this controversy: Why the nurse is not to blame for the Ebola “mistake”.

The public at large is understandably concerned by the news that a nurse here in the United States contracted Ebola despite wearing full protective equipment. How is this possible? Dr.. Thomas Frieden of the CDC seemed to imply it was the nurse’s fault when he stated the infection was due to a “breach in protocol”.

Now there are different schools of thought on this issue. One being this: It MUST have been a “breach in protocol” that caused this infection in the nurse because Dr. Kent Brantly and nurse Nancy Writebol were successfully treated at Emory without any healthcare worker becoming infected. Even though I understand this argument, I believe that it neglects several important points: The first being that the nurse may not have been properly and extensively trained in the proper CDC protocol for putting on AND TAKING OFF the protective equipment. Secondly, the director of the CDC did state that we may see another healthcare worker show signs of the disease in the coming days. To me, this implies that the “breach in protocol” was a procedure that more than one healthcare worker followed–again suggesting improper training of protocols.

More than this, I am struck by the difference in terminology when it comes to the officials and media discussing the infections of Dr. Kent Brantly and Texas nurse Nina Pham. Dr. Kent Brantly was held in high regard after the media picked up the story. He was a humanitarian working for Samaritan’s Purse in Liberia. He was a hero–holding the hands of the sick and the dying. Not surprisingly, no one was discussing the “breach in protocol” that lead to his infection. No one from the CDC was speaking out on the national news saying he was responsible for his own infection.

Nurse Nina Pham, 26, is a hero. Like Dr. Kent Brantly, she went where others did not want to go. I can assure you, there were nurses in Texas who refused to be the one to treat the dying Ebola patient. If not refused, they strongly expressed their desires to not be the one treating him. On a personal note, I remember being the one to step up to the plate with a patient that was suspected to have rabies when I was a young nurse at the age of 24. Most of my coworkers had young children or were pregnant and did not want to subject themselves to a deadly infection that they could bring home to their families. I’m sure this thought crossed Nina Pham’s mind when she agreed to take care of the Ebola patient.

Like Dr. Kent Brantly, Nina Pham is not responsible for her illness. I respect Dr. Frieden for apologizing in a public way for this implication. I realize this is likely the most challenging time in his career. People are demanding answers. I get it. But please, let’s come from a place of respect for the healthcare worker–despite the initials that follow their name. Please, let’s stop blaming the nurses.

5 Comments on “Ebola outbreak: Don’t blame the nurse for infection

  1. I totally agree Sarah. Well said. I too was appalled at the implication that this nurse did something wrong and so her illness was different in some way. I remember taking care of the rabies patient too – in the very beginning we suctioned him together before he was suspected to have rabies. It was scary, but (in my opinion) not as scary as ebola. I know it was worse for you because you had much more exposure to him and had to go through all the vaccinations. My jaw literally dropped when I heard the announcement that the CDC thought there was a breach in protocol. Rather than to think perhaps we aren’t totally clear on the transmission path of this illess (remember, they used to think it was airborne), they pointed the finger at yet another nurse involved in the case. As if any nurse caring for an ebola patient would do anything other than their utmost best to protect themselves and others. Thanks for your postings on this, I appreciated the read. <3 Nurse love

    • Thanks for the love, Audrey! Luckily with Ebola, there is a chance for survival..especially here in the States where we have the ability to support the body with dialysis, transfusions, and ventilators if needed. I’m glad the nurses left Texas for the NIH. I think they will get better care without more healthcare workers getting exposed .

  2. SarahBeth, thank you for your well articulated article on this topic and for being a voice for this nurse. #nursesolidarity

  3. I agree with you entirely, blaming Nina Pham for her infection is noxious. But it is also symptomatic of the simplistic thinking that people outside of medicine engage in.
    I would expand on your thoughts. You say that inadequate training may be the culprit. I would add that there is a tacit assumption that the precautions as they are currently designed are perfect. My strong suspicion is that they are not. She may have perfectly followed imperfect procedures. Also, it is important to say that the designers of any procedure like this must design it with the fallibility of humans as part of the equation. Let us say for the sake of argument, that she did make a mistake. How easy was it to make this mistake? The designers of the procedure must make it very hard to make this mistake. I feel it is often the knee jerk response to blame those instituting the procedures rather than blaming those that invented a procedure that was so hard to do perfectly that it was certain to cause “errors”

    • Dr. Shaffer,
      I totally agree! The standard contact precautions were unacceptable. Hopefully, we will see that change! Thanks for following.

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