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Surviving Ebola

What it takes, what we learned, and how it can help

By Mary Loftus

Story Photo

Video still courtesy of WSB-TV

When medical missionary Dr. Kent Brantly emerged from the back of a Grady ambulance on Saturday afternoon, August 2, clad in a full-body protective suit and holding onto his EMS escort for support, he became the first Ebola patient to set foot on American soil.

He walked slowly and steadily toward the back of Emory University Hospital, where the special isolation unit's infectious disease team was awaiting his arrival. Outside, media satellite trucks lined Clifton Road, reporters were doing live feeds in front of the hospital, and television helicopters hovered overhead.

Inside, however, the mood was calm and focused.

Despite the fact that Brantly was walking on his own, he was a very sick man. He had acquired the deadly Zaire strain of Ebola while working with patients at a Liberian hospital, and the disease was pillaging his body, causing a life-threatening metabolic imbalance and heart arrhythmia. "I was focused on putting one foot in front of the other," he said later.

Emory's medical team had been in communication with Brantly's doctors in Monrovia, as well as the medics caring for him on the private jet flight back to Georgia.

Dr. Bruce Ribner
Director Bruce Ribner checks on the condition of a patient with Ebola in Emory Hospital's isolation unit, built to treat patients with highly lethal infectious diseases. spacer

"Let me just say we were cautiously optimistic," says isolation unit medical director Bruce Ribner. "We've always had a strong feeling that the 50% to 90% fatality rates associated with this disease are not what we'd anticipate here."

Ribner, an infectious disease expert with a disarming wit and slightly rumpled appearance, had been actively preparing for such a scenario for more than a dozen years, nearly from the time he'd been hired as head epidemiologist for Emory Hospital.

The hospital's isolation unit was built under contract with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2002, largely in case one of its employees was exposed to a highly lethal, contagious disease in the field or in a lab.

At that time, there was just one facility in the US that could handle patients with these types of diseases, and that was a back room in the Army Medical Command installation at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

"It was kind of the old Soviet model—two beds in the back, not attached to any medical facility. You put the patients there to isolate them and contain the disease, and if they got better, great," Ribner says. "The CDC decided they needed something better."

Emory Travel Well medical director and CDC consultant Phyllis Kozarsky, who was involved in the early planning stages, remembers a patient she saw in Atlanta in the 1990s that vividly illustrated the need for such a unit: A CDC staffer came to her clinic with a 104-degree fever after working with small mammals in the jungles of South America. "We suspected a hemorrhagic fever but didn't have anywhere to care for him," she says. "My nurse actually put a mask on him and one on herself and ran him in a wheelchair down the sidewalk of Peachtree Street to [then-Crawford Long] hospital, and took him up to the fifth floor to a room used for TB patients. We were fearful for him, for us, and for the hospital." His wife drove his blood samples to the CDC for testing.

Fortunately, the patient survived and his disease didn't spread, but no one wanted to leave the handling of the next such incident to chance.

12 years of preparation

So Ribner, Kozarsky, and a core group of Emory and CDC experts meticulously planned and designed a serious communicable disease unit, which was built in a back wing of Emory University Hospital on Clifton Road, just down the road from CDC headquarters.

"We placed it where there could be easy control of ingress and egress and modifications to air handling," Ribner says. "We wanted it to be reasonably peripheral, not to have to bring patients through hallways and on elevators."

Ribner gathered an infectious disease team that stayed up to date on procedures for handling illnesses that posed a high threat of contagion (severe acute respiratory syndrome, anthrax, biotoxins). They were trained in the use of personal protective equipment like Tyvek suits and ran drills for a dozen different scenarios—a symptomatic CDC staffer flown in from an outbreak, a lab tech with a finger prick, a soldier with a high fever. "We designed it for something hideously contagious, like SARS," Ribner says.




The result was a fully equipped isolation unit, able to deal with biosafety level 4 pathogens and ready to be activated and staffed at a moment's notice. "It would have been really challenging to develop something like this on the fly," he says.

The unit has been used only a few times over the years—once for a patient with Marburg hemorrhagic fever symptoms, another with SARS symptoms, although neither patient developed those illnesses. It also housed clinical trial volunteers who had been given highly contagious diseases, like norovirus, for research purposes.

 To devote resources to such a rarely used, specialized unit is "kind of like having an insurance policy," Ribner says. "You can complain that you didn't collect on your policy all these years or you can say—as in this case—'Boy, we're lucky we've been supporting it because now we really need it.' "

'We've got a doctor who's infected'

By late July, the deadly Zaire strain of Ebola was spreading steadily across West Africa. Unlike earlier outbreaks in more rural areas, the virus was showing up in urban centers with concentrated populations and already overburdened health care systems.

The CDC had dozens of "boots on the ground" in the affected countries and was preparing to dispatch 50 more emergency responders. The agency's emergency operation center—its "battle room," filled with computers and real-time maps of the outbreak—was monitoring the situation and supervising its field teams.

The hospital's infectious disease team watched and waited. "We are very attuned to how to manage it should any CDC staffer become ill," says Kozarsky. "I was in contact with a number of them, and hearing what was happening there was very sobering."

The US State Department contacted Ribner on Monday, July 28, and asked to tour the isolation unit. Two days later, they called and said, "We've got a doctor in Liberia who's infected, you've probably read about him in the press. We'd like to fly him back to your unit."

Ribner checked with Emory colleagues, senior staff, and administrators. "They immediately said yes," he says.

Hospital officials knew they might receive some negative reactions. The fact that this was Ebola, the subject of the terrifying 1994 best-seller The Hot Zone and the most virulent of the hemorrhagic fevers, meant that the press corps, and the public's dire imaginings, would be out in full force.

Ribner started getting a "tsunami" of hate mail before the first patient had even arrived—people angry that he was "bringing Ebola" to Atlanta.

"It's not like this is a new virus that just mutated, that we know nothing about," he says. "The CDC has been dealing with Ebola for 40 years. It was only a matter of time before it came to our shores. We were actually very lucky. Someone could just have stepped off the plane at Hartsfield and collapsed with it."

Some of Emory Healthcare Special Isolaion Unit nursing team

Five infectious disease doctors, 21 nurses, two pathologists, and five medical technologists make up the core Emory Healthcare team (several of whom are shown above) that provides round-the-clock care to Emory's Ebola patients. While the patients are contagious, their direct caretakers wear full-body Tyvek suits, hoods, and double gloves. Still, said patient Kent Brantly, their kindness was never shrouded: "You cared for me with such expertise, yet with such tenderness and compassion. I will never forget you."



More sick than anticipated

The team had three days to prepare. "We'd been planning for 12 years, what would we do if?" says Ribner. "We were finally going to get to do it."

Phoenix Air ambulance service flew Brantly to the US in a tent-like isolative pod, landing at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta and then transferring him by ambulance to Emory on Saturday, Aug. 2.

Three days later, 59-year-old Nancy Writebol would follow, arriving on Tuesday, just past 1 p.m. She was carried in on a stretcher to the isolation unit's second room within view of her friend and fellow missionary, Brantly, who waved and tried to catch her eye.

The level of virus in Brantly and Writebol when they arrived, on a scale of 1 to 10, was a 10, said unit physician Marshall Lyon.

One danger of Ebola is heartbeat irregularities caused by dehydration from the constant diarrhea. In fact, there are frequent reports of Ebola patients dying after sitting up and clutching their chests, leading experts to believe that many victims may actually die of cardiac arrest.

Brantly was experiencing arrhythmia when he arrived. "We did not anticipate how metabolically abnormal both these patients would be when they came to us," Ribner says.

Brantly and Writebol had been given an experimental treatment, ZMapp, before they left Liberia, which binds the virus in the blood with neutralizing antibodies, providing passive immunity. ZMapp had proven successful in clinical trials with primates.

That treatment was continued while the patients were at Emory, Ribner says, but he believes aggressive "supportive care" remained the key to their recovery.

Supportive care for Ebola patients includes controlling fever, balancing fluid and electrolyte levels, providing respiratory support, and treating for complications. "The whole idea is constant monitoring, excellent nursing, frequent vital signs, and treating problems as they arise," says team physician Jay Varkey. "Basically, we try to keep them alive long enough for their body to fight the virus on its own."

Took every precaution

Dr. Kent Brantly, 33, was fervently hoping that his body would rally to fight the virus.

Dr. Kent Brantly spacer
Kent Brantly was in Liberia as a medical missionary with Samaritan's Purse; Nancy Writebol was volunteering at the same Liberian hospital through SIM. After acquiring Ebola, they were flown back to the US and treated at Emory Hospital.
Nancy Writebol

When he, his wife, Amber, and their two children went to Liberia in October 2013 on a two-year assignment with the Christian charity Samaritan's Purse, Ebola was "not on our radar. We moved to Liberia because God called us to serve the people of Liberia," Brantly said.

This March, at a picnic with friends, they heard that Ebola cases were appearing in Guinea and had begun to spread to

Liberia. In June, the hospital at which Brantly and Writebol worked received its first Ebola patient. During July, the number of Ebola patients increased steadily.

Brantly said he and other caretakers at ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa) Hospital followed strict World Health Organization (WHO) and CDC guidelines for safety, "taking every precaution to protect ourselves from this dreaded disease."

On July 20, as the epidemic spread, Brantly took Amber and his children to the airport to fly back to the US to attend a wedding. He returned to work, planning to join his family shortly. Dressed in sweltering protective gear, he continued to provide medical care, hold patients' hands, and sing to them as they lay dying. "In the first month and a half, we had one survivor out of 45," he said.

Three days later, he awoke feeling ill. He stayed isolated in his house, but thought the odds were that he had malaria or some other illness, especially after his first test for Ebola came back negative. The second Ebola test, however, was positive.

"I lay in my bed in Liberia for the following nine days, getting sicker and weaker each day. I prayed that God would help me to be faithful even in my illness," Brantly said, "and I prayed that in my life or in my death, He would be glorified."

Caring in isolation

The core Emory medical team that provided direct care to Brantly and Writebol—five infectious disease doctors, 21 nurses, two pathologists, and five medical technologists—had all volunteered to work in the isolation unit. They came together immediately when it was activated before Brantly's arrival, canceling vacations and rehearsing everything from donning and doffing the personal protective gear to starting IVs while double-gloved.

Carolyn Hill, unit nursing director, said that in the midst of preparing, the serious ness of what they were about to undertake hit home. "I had to withdraw and take a moment to myself," Hill says. "This was real—every decision had to be well thought out and executed perfectly. It wasn't just the patients' lives at stake, it was everyone on the team. You felt the weight. There were two possible outcomes—it went well, both patients survived, and no one was contaminated. Or something really bad happened."

The nurses quickly discovered that normal 12-hour shifts were untenable with the level of intensive, one-on-one care that Brantly and Writebol needed. They switched to three 8-hour shifts with three nurses present around the clock—one dedicated to each patient, and one in the anteroom between patient rooms.

Team members took their own temperatures twice a day and recorded the results, even on their days off, to make sure they weren't symptomatic.

Part of the intensity of the care was that medical staff having direct contact with either patient wore full-body personal protective equipment—disposable Tyvek suits, shoe coverings, gloves, masks, and PAPR (powered air purifying respirator, a helmet and face guard that filters and circulates air).

The "spacesuit," says Ribner, is actually more than is needed for protection from Ebola, since the virus is not airborne. "But wearing masks, goggles, and face shields for a lot of hours is not very comfortable," he says. "With PAPRs, you get a nice breeze blowing on your face."

Everything leaving the patient rooms was sterilized. All disposable items were double-bagged and sterilized in an autoclave before being incinerated—from disposable dining trays to Tyvek suits. Nurses showered and changed after each shift. There was frequent hand washing and disinfecting.

"You have to be very detail-oriented to work on a unit like this. Just to take everything off, there were approximately 20 steps you had to follow," says Sharon Vanairsdale, the clinical nurse specialist for the unit. "We didn't hesitate to hold each other accountable. Nobody took it personally."

Family members were able to visit and speak with Brantly and Writebol through glass windows. "There were tears," says Hill, "especially the first time they saw each other."

Turning points and Krispy Kreme

After the first week, it became clear that the worst was over. The nurses knew their patients were feeling better when they asked for showers and real food: Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Starbucks coffee, and pizza. Modern conveniences, including iPads and laptops, were available for communication with family and friends. And there was the occasional Nerf basketball competition between Brantly and his care team.

Then came the day when each patient's viral level tested low enough that they were able to have contact with their families. The nurses sterilized Brantly's wedding ring for Amber so she could give it back to him, then cleared a path on the floor with bleach for their first hug.

After extensive testing that showed they posed no threat of contagion to the public, Writebol left quietly on Aug. 19, after 17 days in the unit, and Brantly left two days later. The morning of Aug. 21, the care team lined up as Brantly, smiling broadly and dressed in a blue dress shirt and khakis, walked down the hallway, giving high fives and dancing an impromptu jig that drew cheers from the group.

Standing hand in hand with Amber, Brantly addressed a room packed with reporters as the care team lined up behind him. "Today is a miraculous day. I'm thrilled to be alive and well and reunited with my family," he said. Brantly thanked the doctors and nurses who cared for him throughout his illness, and urged that increased efforts be made to provide international assistance. "Please continue to pray for Liberia and the people of West Africa, and encourage those in positions of leadership and influence to do everything possible to bring this Ebola outbreak to an end," he said.

Ribner also spoke, saying it was "the right decision to bring these patients back to Emory for treatment. What we learned in caring for them will advance the world's understanding of how to treat Ebola. We are grateful for the successful outcome in their cases, but we never take success for granted."

Carolyn Hill, Bruce Ribner, Charles Hill

Isolation unit nursing director Carolyn Hill, medical director Bruce Ribner, and pathologist Charles Hill (far right) confer just outside the sliding glass doors to Emory University Hospital's special isolation unit, where a third American aid worker infected with Ebola was admitted on Sept. 9.


'We're crying out to everybody'

As the summer progressed, the outbreak intensified in West Africa, expanding exponentially. By late September, there were 6,574 cases and more than 3,091 deaths (WHO), making this the largest, most deadly Ebola outbreak in history. Liberian families with sick relatives were driving from clinic to clinic in search of open beds; others were dying in the streets.

In the middle of Writebol and Brantly's stay, what at first appeared to be a small group of protesters had gathered on the sidewalk in front of the hospital, carrying signs, singing, and praying. In fact, they were Liberian Americans there to thank the missionaries and the hospital: "We are praying for you," "You Are Our Heroes," and "Pray for Liberia," read the hand-lettered posters.

"We are here to show our gratitude," said one young woman.

"We're really helpless, that's why we're crying out to everybody," said another.

Kent and Amber Brantly spacer

Both Kent Brantly (leaving Emory Hospital with his wife, Amber) and Nancy Writebol are allowing medical information about them to be used to help others.

The medical team was eager to share what they had learned with colleagues here and around the world, consulting by phone and submitting journal articles. (Dr. Brantly is a coauthor on one.)

"My hope is that by providing excellent care here, we learn processes that can be translated and expanded to other countries," Varkey said.

On Sept. 5, another American doctor with Ebola, Rick Sacra, was flown from Liberia to the biocontainment unit at Nebraska Medical Center. Brantly flew to Nebraska to donate blood for Sacra's treatment in an effort to "jumpstart" his immunity. His blood type was a perfect match.

Emory's isolation unit was cleaned and disinfected, and the care team went back to their regular assignments but stayed in contact. Some even formed a kickball team they named, tongue firmly in cheek, "Can't Touch This."

Then they learned that another American aid worker infected with Ebola in Africa would be flown back to the US, arriving at Emory Hospital on Sept. 9.

They knew exactly what to do. The isolation unit was immediately reactivated.

"People keep saying this is the new normal, but there's nothing normal about it," says nursing director Carolyn Hill, standing just outside the unit one morning in mid-September. "Each case takes just as much concentration and attention to detail as the first."

As efficient and unflappable as ever, Hill walks down the hall and speaks reassuringly to another small knot of hopeful relatives.

Then she has a quick meeting with Ribner and pathologist Charles Hill, makes sure everyone has put in their lunch orders, and begins reviewing the nursing shift schedule, the now familiar weight settling back onto her shoulders.

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