Heads up on Ebola

After last week's column on the Ebola virus, where I commented on the possibility of sweat being one of the more dangerous bodily fluids involved in transmission, I heard from a nursing friend. “You're downplaying the two worst bodily fluids,” she said. “You're not visualizing fully what's going on.” (At this point, I want to warn the squeamish … this column is gonna get a bit funky, talking about severely gross and icky stuff. If you don't want to deal with some unpleasant images, this would be a good time to just move on, and I'll see you next week.)

She works as a nurse's assistant, the people on hospital staffs who do the real stuff for patients—changing bedpans, changing sheets, bringing food, cleaning up, etc. The angelic, essential work that's at the heart of any decent hospital. She told me I wasn't “seeing” the reality of late stage Ebola victims, the reality of those people who are about to die. “You claim in your column that it's easy to avoid contact with the feces and the vomit coming out of those dying patients. You speak as though they're fully capable of just getting out of bed and going to the toilet when they have to shit or barf. They can't. You're thinking about these people as if they have the flu. They don't. They have Ebola. They're in bad shape. Mostly, they lay there in bed, feeling bad. Unbelievably bad. This is not a good way to go. So they're not just dealing with diarrhea and nausea. They're racked with explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting. Catching my drift?”

Uhhh—go on …

“The feces and vomit coming out of dying Ebola patients is literally deadly. The stuff is like a biological weapon, loaded with billions of hot, live viruses that can kill. So when a patient is laying in bed and suddenly explodes with a blast of either of these putrid sludges, it's a problem. A big problem. For one, this toxic junk is now all over the bed and all over the room. Which is not good. This shit has to be cleaned up and cleaned up well. The people doing the cleaning, people like me, have to be wearing a full bio-protection suit. It's a must. If we don't have bio-protection suits, we're in trouble. Now, you're in a room that's literally crawling with live Ebola. That mess has to be cleaned up and neutralized. If there are proper BPSs in the hospital, great. Now, you can at least clean the patient and the room. It's a horrible job, but it can be done. You just gotta have those suits. Without 'em, the virus moves along. It's been doing so in Africa now for months. We can slow this thing down, and then we can stop it. But it's going to take thoughtful, meticulous work to do it. We have to be really careful. Ebola thrives on slip-ups, errors, and mistakes. We'll stop it, but it's not going to be easy.”