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Monday, October 20, 2014

Ebola and the Palliative Clinician

by Ann Colbert

Who doesn’t feel a wrenching in their heart? The Ebola virus, first recognized in 1978, killed less than 2000 people in its first 35 years and double that number in the past 10 months. According to the World Health Organization 416 health care workers have contracted Ebola and, at least, 233 have died. That is almost 6% of deaths.

As we all know a new, more widespread outbreak of Ebola had started. I began to read about the virus, the symptoms, the treatment, and the spread. And I recalled my month long work at a hospital in Zambia a few years ago where the TB isolation ward was anything but and supplies rarely arrived as planned.

A few weeks ago, I started thinking, “I could go help out”. For one of the first times, my skill set was needed. Gowning up and providing supportive care is what I do best. A palliative care doctor could do a lot more for a patient with Ebola than a trauma surgeon, an electrician or a body retrieval dog. And given the lack of infrastructure, soldiers are now being sent, including 150 from nearby Fort Campbell, to build hospitals and use their other non-combat skills.

I kept thinking I could go to West Africa with full understanding the risk was high I may not come back well, or even alive, because that is already happening to our palliative clinical peers. Miata Jambawai, a member of Sierra Leone’s Ebola Rapid Response Team writes, “Our doctors are dying. Our nurses are dying. Our lab technicians are dying and help does not come”. One of the doctors she referenced was Olivet Buck, a palliative care specialist, the 4th Sierra Leone doctor to die from the outbreak. William Pooley (link?), the first Briton known to have contracted Ebola is a palliative care nurse who selflessly volunteered to work in a Sierra Leone hospital where 15 other nurses had died. He was infected with Ebola and survived and today is starting work again to help others with Ebola in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

I could die and for the first time in my life, I was consciously ready to die. I am slightly past middle aged, my daughter is about to graduate college and very capable, my dog is old and won’t be around much longer. I have traveled all over and done pretty much anything I wanted to do. I was OK with the risks of going to Africa.

Trouble was, no one else agreed with me. No one else thought my life was worth the help I could give. When I told my daughter, she was aghast and dead set against it – she was so afraid of losing me, that I couldn’t bear it. My friends reacted similarly. Only my boyfriend encouraged me but he’s a different breed altogether and has a physicist’s perspective on risk.

I didn’t go, but this is what I learned. When a patient hears they have a terminal illness, they may be totally ready to die but if family is not ready – there is little they can do to change the outcome. At some point, of course, biology takes over and death ensues but until then, what a mish-mash of emotions.

If you have been in hospice and palliative care for any amount of time, you have likely seen the patient who is ready to die, but the family is not there emotionally yet. Imagine someone with ribs so skeletal there was no space to place a stethoscope and whose black gangrenous foot throbs below the covers. She says to you, "I hope it won't be too long, because I am ready." In response, her family nervous but cheerily quips, “You might outlive us all.” Hoping for a natural death but trying so hard to stay for others. I have never thought so intimately about this from the perspective of a patient. Mostly I think like a family member – I don’t want anyone around me to die.

This lesson may pale in comparison to the weightier dilemmas and challenges of Ebola but represents the one and only positive outcome I see from this tragic disease.

Ann Colbert grew up in Michigan, completed her residency in Rochester, NY in 1985, moved to Northeastern Kentucky to work as a Family Practitioner until shifting to full-time Palliative Care in 2003 - still in rural Kentucky. She is a multi-instrumentalist wannabe and enjoys many outdoor endeavors.

Image credit: CDC
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