A U.S. Nurse Witnesses Ebola's Ravages in Sierra Leone, Where Horrific Conditions Claim Lives Daily

October 16, 2014


Michelle Dynes

a nurse and epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She spent the past several weeks responding to the Ebola epidemic in the Kenema district of Sierra Leone and recently returned to Atlanta.

As the infections of two Dallas nurses fuel concerns about Ebola in the United States, the death toll in West Africa is approaching 5,000. The World Health Organization has warned there could be up to 10,000 new Ebola cases per week in the coming months, up from the current 1,000. We are joined by Michelle Dynes, a nurse and epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who has returned from Sierra Leone. Dynes spent the past several weeks responding to the Ebola epidemic in the country’s Kenema district. "It’s a strange situation to see that much pain and suffering and not be able to provide a hug, or comfort," Dynes says.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Centers for Disease Control Director Thomas Frieden is set to testify before Congress today at a hearing on what U.S. officials are doing to contain the spread of the Ebola virus. This comes as two nurses have been placed in isolation at Emory Hospital in Atlanta after they contracted Ebola in Texas while treating an infected patient who has since died [Correction: The second nurse, Amber Vinson, has been transferred to Emory; the first, Nina Pham, is still being treated in Dallas]. President Obama canceled two days of planned travel to stay at the White House and oversee the government’s response. After meeting with Cabinet officials Wednesday, he called for more aggressive action, while insisting that the risk of an outbreak in the United States is extremely low.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want to use myself as an example, just so that people have a sense of the science here. I shook hands with, hugged and kissed—not the doctors, but a couple of the nurses at Emory because of the valiant work that they did in treating one of the patients. They followed the protocols, they knew what they were doing, and I felt perfectly safe doing so. And so, this is not a situation in which, like a flu, the risks of a rapid spread of the disease are imminent. If we do these protocols properly, if we follow the steps, if we get the information out, then the likelihood of widespread Ebola outbreaks in this country are very, very low.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Concerns about the spread of Ebola in the United States grew after it was reported the second Texas nurse who contracted the deadly disease had boarded a plane the day before she was diagnosed. CDC Director Tom Frieden said Wednesday she should never have stepped foot on the flight. But another official said no one at the agency stopped her, even after she called to report she had an elevated temperature. Today, two schools in Cleveland announced they’ll remain closed because a staff member may have traveled aboard the same plane.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile in West Africa, nearly 5,000 people have died as authorities struggle to contain the outbreak. In Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, police fired tear gas on people who took to the streets to complain that the body of a woman who died from Ebola was left on the street for two days. This comes as a British nurse who has recovered from Ebola after he contracted the disease in Sierra Leone says doctors told him his antibodies now make him immune to the virus for months to come. As a result, Will Pooley said he will return to Sierra Leone to treat more patients.

WILLIAM POOLEY: Because there’s still a lot of work to do out there, and I’m in sort of the same or better position as I was before, when I chose to go out before. So, yeah, it’s the same decision. My exposure was an—as with everyone’s exposure, it was an accident. And yeah, the only—then, something that everyone will be thinking about, going out, all the volunteers that are here tonight will be thinking, it’s just vigilance, really, and just being really cautious.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Atlanta, where we’re joined by Michelle Dynes. She’s a nurse and epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She spent the past several weeks responding to the Ebola epidemic in the Kenema district of Sierra Leone. She just returned to Atlanta.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what you experienced in Sierra Leone?

MICHELLE DYNES: Thank you for having me this morning. I spent about five-and-a-half weeks in Sierra Leone in Kenema district. I was a health promoter for the CDC, working to disseminate key messages about Ebola to support the social mobilization and psychosocial efforts within the district. By the time I arrived in Kenema hospital, over 20 nurses had contracted Ebola and had died at that point. So I immediately realized the importance of supporting the staff who were there, who have been working day in and day out from the very beginning, who needed their own psychosocial counseling in order to move forward in their own care. So I worked with the psychosocial team at Kenema hospital, and we created a space for the health personnel to receive counseling and also for the survivors of Ebola to receive counseling. We also worked in the communities in Kenema district in order to support families who had been quarantined. We actually came upon a woman one day who had lost 10 members of her family, and two of them had died that very morning. You know, it’s a strange situation to see that much pain and suffering and to not be able to provide a hug or comfort in that way. But it’s important in a situation like that that you maintain distance and you just provide counseling and support in other ways.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michelle Dynes—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sorry, could you explain to some of our viewers here what some of the conditions are under which you were operating in Sierra Leone and what the local medical staff have access to and what they don’t have access to as they try to fight this deadly virus?

MICHELLE DYNES: In the Ebola treatment centers, they have access to personal protective equipment, similar to that which is used in the United States. However, some of the issues that they had was getting supplies into the country due to a reduced number of flights into the country. So getting supplies in was definitely a challenge. They did use personal protective equipment, but there are not enough staff to take care of the Ebola patients. And so, staff oftentimes worked longer hours than they should have, and kept coming day after day, putting their own lives at risk, essentially.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Dynes, you told a story on Dave Isay’s wonderful StoryCorps recently about what happened to a woman who brought her baby into a hospital. Can you describe that story?

MICHELLE DYNES: Shortly before I arrived in Kenema, a woman had come into the treatment center sick with Ebola. And she had brought her baby with her. The mother, unfortunately, tested positive for Ebola, but the baby tested negative. In a situation like that, it’s very, very difficult to know how to move forward with the care of the baby, because we know, as healthcare providers, as public health professionals, that the risk of that baby becoming Ebola-positive is quite high. We know that the Ebola virus is found in breast milk, and that baby was breast-fed. And so, in that situation, the hospital staff chose to keep the baby in their presence so that they could monitor the baby for symptoms of Ebola, especially since the baby had tested negative initially. Unfortunately, over time, the baby did develop Ebola, and those hospital workers had all placed themselves at risk by caring for that baby. It’s the humanitarian side of all of us that reaches out and says, you know, we have to pick up this baby and take care of it, even though you know you’re at risk.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to the nurses and doctors that cared for this baby, cuddled this baby?

MICHELLE DYNES: There were several nurses who contracted Ebola as a result of contact with that baby. And unfortunately, many of them died since that time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And the baby?

MICHELLE DYNES: Unfortunately, the baby also passed away. You know, Ebola is a very, very difficult disease to treat. We can provide supportive measures, but in many cases the body is unable to mount an effective immune response, and that baby succumbed.

AMY GOODMAN: I am sure many people who are watching this broadcast, Michelle, are—consider you a saint. You went to Sierra Leone when all of these nurses died, not to mention all the—many of the people they treated. How did you protect yourself? You know, right now, there’s two major issues in the world: ISIS—the whole discussion, boots on the ground, boots on the ground; but what about medical boots on the ground when it comes to Ebola, what it would mean if tens of thousands of people like you in this country and around the world provided help and care in places like Sierra Leone and Liberia? But first, how do you protect yourself? And what would that look like if people actually responded in this way?

MICHELLE DYNES: First, I want to make it clear that my role in Sierra Leone was not as a nurse. I was not providing direct care to patients. I was there in a health promotion role, trying to make sure that communities were educated, that healthcare workers were properly trained. So, being at Kenema hospital and in that environment, in general, we did take measures every single day to protect ourselves. There were buckets of chlorine water to wash your hands as you entered pretty much every building in the hospital. We used chlorine wipes to wipe down surfaces, to protect ourselves. There were even roadblocks to prevent people coming in and outside of Kenema city and Kenema district, to make sure that people did not come in or leave with a fever. So, there are many, many ways that we were protecting ourselves. And for those who have considered going to help, those measures will continue. And you are there to help others, but you can’t help others if you yourself become ill.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, this is a clip from a video of a Sierra Leone man that went viral last week about a man whose life was ripped apart by Ebola. Douda Fullah lost his father, his two-year-old brother and his stepmother, who was six months pregnant and miscarried when sick in hospital. In a tearful plea, he called on the global community to do more to stop the spread of the virus.

DOUDA FULLAH: This is a really difficult situation. I am begging that you’ll come to our aid. We are suffering. They don’t come to our aid, we don’t have any hope. There is no hope for us. They really have to explain it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was a man, Douda Fullah, who lost so many members of his family to Ebola. Could you talk about what you think the international community could be doing or should be doing in response to this crisis?

MICHELLE DYNES: The international community is doing a lot. CDC is doing everything it can. We just need to continue these efforts and to step up even more, if that’s possible. We’re sending out teams of epidemiologists, teams of lab specialists, health promotion and health communication specialists, and infection control specialists. And now, moving forward, if new cases occur in the United States, we’re sending out rapid response teams to be there within hours on the ground to make sure that the Ebola is contained, of course, in this country, but as much as possible in West Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, something that’s astounding is Cuba just sent something like 160 health professionals. This is a country of something like 11 million people. Washington Post headline on it was "Cuba Punches Above Its Weight," that they sent that many health professionals to deal with this crisis. Didn’t the CDC put out a call, and something like they’re training a group of eight people? If you look at what’s happened in Texas, the number of people required just to deal with, first, Mr. Duncan, who died, and then the two nurses who went to his aid and they are now sick, the number of people that are dealing with the ramifications of all of this—and this is just three people—how many people are needed to go into these West African countries to help? And I wanted to ask also what your thought is about those in Congress who are calling for, basically, a cordon around these countries, stopping planes from going in and out of these countries, what this would mean. Would, in fact, this actually increase the threat of an Ebola—I mean, there already is an epidemic, but explosion?

MICHELLE DYNES: I think that we need hundreds, if not thousands, of additional support in West Africa to help contain Ebola. Now, this idea of preventing planes from coming in or leaving those countries would lead to even greater difficulties in getting necessary supplies to the places like Kenema hospital, where they’re treating Ebola patients. While I can’t speak for the CDC, I think making broad decisions like that would only hurt the situation even further and reduce the support that these countries are receiving from the international community.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Dynes, we want to thank you very much for being with us, nurse and epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spent the past several weeks responding to the Ebola epidemic in Kenema district of Sierra Leone, recently returned to Atlanta. Final question: If people do want to get involved, if people do want to help, especially health professionals, what way do they have to link in?

MICHELLE DYNES: There are many international nongovernmental organizations that people can get involved. For example, there are WHO volunteers. The Red Cross Societies from around the world are sending in volunteers, and many other organizations, such as MSF, Doctors Without Borders. So I would just recommend that people find the organization that really speaks to them and the type of work and support that they’re providing, and look into those opportunities.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Dynes, thanks so much.

MICHELLE DYNES: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: As we bring in Leigh Phillips now into this conversation—Michelle speaking to us from Atlanta.

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