An Ebola nurse faces widespread stigma after returning from Liberia

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Marco Werman: Marco Werman here with The World. It was a simply bike ride, but these days nothing is simple for Kaci Hickox. She’s the nurse who’s defying authorities in Maine who want her quarantined. Today, as you may have heard, she made a point of leaving her home to take that bike ride with her boyfriend. A state police cruiser followed them. Hickox is just one of the many returning healthcare workers who spent time in West Africa treating Ebola patients recently. Sierra Leone, in her case, with the group Doctors Without Borders. in Deborah Wilson’s case, it was Liberia. Wilson is a registered nurse who lives in Lenox, Massachusetts. She recently returned from working with Doctors Without Borders, MSF, in the northern Liberian town of Foya. She spent six weeks there, treating up to 80 Ebola patients a day. Debbie, thanks for coming into the studio, and I know this is a special day for you, so tell us why.

 

Deborah Wilson: Because it’s day 21, or the day after day 21, so I am free, not like my colleague, Kaci Hickox, who lives in Maine. I flew into Newark Airport just over three weeks ago, and she did too, so I've been very lucky.

 

Werman: So, 21 days in quarantine. Can we say that was self-imposed, or was there an insistence that you were quarantined.

 

Wilson: No, I wasn't quarantined. I was on a 21-day transition. So, prior to all of this that’s been going on, protocol has been, and we hope will still be, that we rest because the main thing is we don't want to get sick with something else, because if I get sick, everybody is going to think it’s Ebola. So, I take my temperature twice a day and I know that even if I caught the Ebola virus, until that virus transfers from the liver into the blood, I am not infectious. So, since I've been back, I've taken my temperature more than twice a day because every day, every time I go out, I take my temperature. But I’ve been free to go out. And we have to stay within a three hour radius of the designated hospital, so that if we get sick, we can immediately get there and have a contact person, who was my boyfriend Jack, who, if I get sick, he’s the one that takes me. So he’s the contact.

 

Werman: But you're here with us, day 22, showing no symptoms. As you know, Kaci Hickox, who’s back now, we just talked about her, she’s challenging Maine’s 21-day home quarantine policy. What do you think about her position?

 

Wilson: I totally support her, I feel for two reasons. One is she’s not going to transmit Ebola, she’s not symptomatic. Even more, she’s been tested negative for Ebola. Now, maybe the Ebola virus will emerge in the next 10 days -- highly unlikely, since she’s testing negative. But why should she be trapped after going and saving lives for six weeks? To be in those Ebola clinics, you have no idea what we go through. To come home and then to be locked up in your house because of fear and misinformation, and because governor Chris Christie is trying to go for a presidential election. And maybe that’s being too strong, but it just seemed that his focus was saying “I want to protect my constituents.” But not one person in the general public has got Ebola here in this country and the outbreak began in January.

 

Werman: You don't buy the idea that an ounce of prevention is worth all of that trouble?

 

Wilson: But the prevention is that we're taking our temperature twice a day. And again, I'm going to be very careful to take my temperature because if I do get symptomatic, I’m going to want treatment immediately. That’s what’s going to save my life. Secondly, I've seen how people die of Ebola, and there’s no way I want my friends or the general public to get it. So, if I thought there was any risk, I would have stayed home. But there’s no need. It doesn't mean I’m going to go flying off anywhere. I’m going to stay close to home. But there is really no risk.

 

Werman: It was kind of nutty just this morning, watching the news wires. They were kind of tracking Kaci Hickox like OJ Simpson. “She has left her house on a bicycle with her boyfriend and Maine State Police are following her. The reports point out they can't detain her without a judge’s order…” It’s kind of crazy. How does all of this strike you after coming from West Africa?

 

Wilson: Why aren't we reporting what’s happening in Africa? Even, for example, when she came in, the day she came in or the day before, a 15-year-old boy went into a high school and shot all of these kids in the head. To me, that’s an epidemic in America. I've heard nothing about what we're doing about that. But now we're tracking Kaci Hickox because she’s negative for Ebola and because she took the risk to actually go out and actually try and stop the spread of Ebola? I just feel it’s deeply wrong. It’s this fear that causes us to ostracize and isolate people, where when we're so privileged and we're so lucky and we're so educated, why don't we start using that?

 

Werman: I know it hasn't been easy for you either, Debbie, coming back to the States. Tell me about how friends and strangers alike have been treating you?

 

Wilson: I think a lot of friends have refused to see me, and even one very close friend, her husband banned her from seeing me, which was very hard on her. Two other friends of mine just happened to mention that their friend had come back from Liberia and one place of employment said they would throw her under the bus if she came after seeing me. So she hasn’t been able to see me. I mean, this is for absolutely no reason at all. I have been healthy and well a whole 21 days, and believe me -- one day I had a mild headache and I was supposed to go out, I didn't go out, just in case it was something more. Which it wasn’t. I took a nap and I was fine. But all of us, if we've gone out to work in Africa, we're responsible people. We can take our own temperature. I certainly don't mind -- and I actually am reporting my temperature once a week, we have a hotline to call. I feel if we care enough to out there as a volunteer, people think we get paid a lot to go deal with Ebola -- we were volunteers. Why would we put anyone at risk? And why lose our civil liberties and be treated as a pariah?

 

Werman: It was a huge risk you took. It has to be said. Why did you decide to go?

 

Wilson: There was a need and Doctors Without Borders called, and why would I not go? I have the skills, I've been to Africa before and my boss said yes, so. I’m really glad I went.

 

Werman: Deborah Wilson, a registered nurse from Lenox, Massachusetts. She’s recently returned from Liberia, where she volunteered with Doctors Without Borders to treat Ebola patients. If you have questions for Debbie, she’s on our Facebook page right now, answering your queries. Ask away at Facebook.com/PRITheWorld.