Treating Ebola patients rewarding for local nurse
The moment Aspen nurse JoAnn Niebur realized that treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone was going to be more difficult than she thought occurred when she first donned her protective gear.
“It was so hot there, … I thought I was going to die,” Niebur said. “My mask fogged up. I thought, ‘I can’t take care of patients in this stuff.’”
The suit was made of the same material builders wrap houses in to waterproof them, she said.
“It doesn’t breathe and it’s not supposed to,” Niebur said, adding that the temperature was in the mid-90s and humid.
In addition to the suit itself, she also had to wear knee-high booties, a heavy-duty surgical mask used to prevent tuberculosis that seals over the nose and cheeks, a hair net, a plastic face shield that stretched from her forehead to her chest, rubber boots and two pairs of elbow-length gloves. That first time, she kept the suit on for 20 minutes.
“I kept saying, ‘It’s OK, you can do this. It’s not that bad,’” she said. “I was really talking myself down.”
Her first time in an Ebola treatment unit with mock patients, her mask fogged up while she was walking around and someone yelled, “Stop!” she said.
“I was walking on needles on the floor,” Niebuhr said. “I couldn’t see them. They said, ‘You need to figure out how to make this work.’”
Eventually, she got used to the heat and was able to spend an hour and a half at a time in the suits twice a day while she treated patients. After taking off the suit, she usually would have to drink four liters of water, she said.
Niebur, who has lived in Aspen for the past 10 years, is currently getting a master’s degree in midwifery because she and her husband, Dr. Dwayne Niebur, want to go on medical missions to developing countries. She said she volunteered in the fall to go to either Sierra Leone or Liberia after she read that they needed health care workers because many were too scared to volunteer.
Niebur ended up going to West Africa with Partners In Health, a non-governmental organization focused on improving health care in poor countries. She left Aspen on Jan. 12 and flew to Boston for two days of training before flying to Freetown, Sierra Leone. She was in the country until Feb. 7.
Niebur was posted to an Ebola treatment unit located in the parking lot of the Princess Christian Maternity Hospital and exclusively treated pregnant women suspected of having Ebola or women who had just given birth.
“Ebola causes miscarriages and they just bleed and bleed and bleed,” she said.
The walls of the hospital were lined with pictures of health care workers who had died of Ebol, she said. She worked in the facility seven days a week, eight hours a day.
One of the hardest moments came when she noticed a baby lying on its mother’s bed while the mother was sleeping.
“I thought, ‘That baby is not the right color,’” she said.
The baby was dead, though not from Ebola, and couldn’t be saved, Niebur said.
Another heartbreaking problem she dealt with were women who needed C-sections but couldn’t get them until they had a negative Ebola test. However, those results took 36 hours and only one of the women in labor made it through the test period and was able to give birth, she said.
“We gave them morphine and sedatives,” Niebur said. “I lost track of how many died.”
Her most rewarding patient was a woman whose blood pressure was through the roof after she gave birth to stillborn twins. She said she was sure the woman was brain-damaged but she would sit and talk to her anyway, though the woman never responded.
Then one day, Niebur walked in and asked the woman if she was going to talk to her that day.
“She said, ‘Why are the lights on during the day?’” Niebur said. “She was back. She was fine. I could not believe it.”
Niebur said the experience has reinforced her desire to get her midwifery degree and travel to poor countries to help improve health care systems.
“It was really, really hard, but the need is so great,” she said.
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