Now that I live in Chicago, I often joke that my hometown of Atlanta only makes the news here when something bad or stupid or both has happened. Atlanta made the news back in January or February for their ineptitude for dealing with the snow, then again in April when the legislature passed a law allowing guns to be carried in schools, bars, and churches. The most recent Georgia news item that got Chicago’s attention was a Georgia man who may have intentionally left his toddler in a hot car, resulting in the child’s death.
This week though, Atlanta captured national attention when Emory University announced that they would be treating two American healthcare workers who contracted the Ebola virus while providing aid in Africa. When I first saw the headline, “Emory University Hospital to Treat Ebola Patient in Atlanta,” on the Chicago Tribune’s website, I will admit that I was initially shocked. I was shocked because Atlanta had been chosen, versus dozens of other hospitals in the United States. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Emory is a renowned medical and educational institution and they are mere steps from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Where better to bring someone suffering from a virus that is still not well understood?
Reactions to Emory’s decision and to the US decision to bring Ebola into the United States for the first time are varied. On my own Facebook news feed, I’ve had a mixture of folks posting flow charts that basically tell everyone to calm down and people who are upset and afraid. And I get it. Ebola is a scary disease, made even scarier by the fact that there is no cure and there is a startlingly high mortality rate (I’ve read as high as 60%). The current outbreak is the worst in modern history I believe, with well over 1300 documented cases. But here’s the thing – the current West African Ebola outbreak has been happening since February of this year, but it has just begun making headline news in the US within the last two weeks. For essentially six months, we as Americans have been ignoring it, until it looked like it might affect us too. Granted, there are other major events happening throughout the world right now, but it does make me stop and think when I see people posting on social media about how awful and outrageous this disease is, when they haven’t been interested in it for the past six months.
I grew up on Emory University’s campus. My childhood home, where my parents still live, is 1.6 miles away from the hospital. That is a 6 minute drive, a 30 minute walk. I have a friend who recently began a job (in a non-medical field) at the university, I have friends who go to church on campus, I have friends who work at the Yerkes Institute on campus. My high school was less than a block from campus, and we used to use Emory’s classrooms for AP and IB testing. I went to music camp for three years at Emory. I grew up down the street from Judson Ward, a former vice-president of Emory and their Dean of Alumni until his death in 2009. I didn’t go to undergrad or graduate school at Emory, but it feels very much a part of my childhood, so this has hit closer to home than I thought it would, given that I now live over 700 miles away.
Let’s be clear – I firmly believe that these two health workers being transferred to Emory is a great thing. They can get the care that they need in a modern medical facility that is specially equipped to deal with a deadly contagion. The disease can be better studied now so that one day there will be a vaccine or a medication that can stop the spread in Africa. But I also believe that in America, we enjoy a news culture based around fear-mongering. We like the drama, we really do. CNN ran a headline this week that was something to the effect of how quickly will Ebola spread in the US once the health workers are in Atlanta. That headline is designed to do nothing but make people afraid. And we were already afraid, weren’t we? Afraid of this disease that is supposed to affect third world citizens, not Americans. Afraid of this disease that has no cure, that moves quickly and devastatingly. Afraid of the movie Outbreak coming true.
A friend of mine posted something on Facebook, in response to another friend being concerned about Ebola being in Atlanta, which I will paraphrase. My friend is several decades older than myself, and a healthcare worker, and this person remembered back to the 1980s and 1990s when the country was going through an AIDS scare and how she had been scared to treat patients who had AIDS because so much was still unknown. She wondered, though, what would have happened if doctors and nurses had refused AIDS victims care, if no one had been willing to touch them or to draw blood from them, or to even study the disease. Where would we be?
Where will we be if we don’t study Ebola, or offer treatment to these two US aid workers? The reality is that they can get far better healthcare in the United States than they can in Africa. The reality is that the care and medical attention being given to those suffering in Africa right now, wouldn’t even pass for bad care from a modern healthcare facility. As horrible as it is that hundreds of people are dying right now and can’t get access to the technology and facilities that can contain something as deadly as Ebola, by bringing these healthcare workers to Emory, we have a chance to change that. We have a chance to see how the virus responds to modern medicine. We have a chance to study it, to study the antibodies that the victims create in their efforts to fight off the virus. We have a chance to learn.
One of the biggest reasons I’ve seen thrown around as to why these two healthcare workers shouldn’t be brought into the US is that they were careless enough to contract the virus in the first place. Is that not truly ridiculous? Careless enough? These people are hardly careless and it is, I imagine – having never been to Africa or having never been a medical professional – easy to make mistakes when working in an environment like those in Africa, or when working 20 hour days. Ebola spreads through fluid, meaning that (as far as we know) Ebola is contracted by coming into contact with bodily fluid from another person who is already infected. That infected bodily fluid – blood, lets say – would then have to make it’s way into the non-infected persons body, through an open sore – a cut, a pin-prick – or a mucus membrane – the nose, eyes, mouth. Containment suits are only so useful when you are tasked with caring for dozens of patients and you haven’t slept in days. Mistakes are made.
I have moved from feeling shocked that Atlanta and Emory were chosen to play host to the Ebola victims, to feeling something that I think is close to pride. I don’t know any doctors or nurses at Emory and I certainly don’t know anyone on the team tasked with treating the two infected healthcare workers, but I think they are all doing something amazing that could lead to even more amazing things, like a cure or a treatment. Yes, I’m sure it is easier for me to feel this way being geographically far from Atlanta right now, but I just can’t believe that the US would knowingly endanger it’s citizens by bringing Ebola to the country if they didn’t feel that the doctors at Emory were equipped to treat it.
What I want to say to my friends in Atlanta is that worry and fear are natural in the face of the unknown, especially when it is as deadly as Ebola. But something good will come of this. It may not come this week, it may not come next month, or even this year. We don’t know if the two victims being brought to Emory will survive and fight off the virus (Ebola is not always a death sentence; some do survive), but if we don’t take risks, we have no hope of figuring this disease out. So yes, I am a mixture of nervous, proud, happy, and hopeful that my backyard, my beloved hometown of Atlanta has Ebola.