As best they could, nurses Zach Phillips and Tracy Cowell have tried to prepare for what awaits them in Ebola-ravaged Liberia.
Phillips, 27, of Kansas City, already has quit his job as an emergency room nurse at the University of Kansas Hospital. Cowell, 34, of Overland Park, quit hers at Mid America Rehabilitation Hospital.
They’ve gotten their inoculations: influenza, meningitis, yellow fever, typhus.
Both have told loved ones the details: On Dec. 4, the two nurses will fly to Liberia for a six-month stint with the Lenexa-based medical humanitarian group Heart to Heart International in the center of the deadliest Ebola epidemic in recorded history.
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They will wear protective suits that swelter in equatorial Africa.
They will not be allowed to venture far from a 50-bed treatment unit soon to open in Tappita, about 200 miles east of Monrovia.
Death will surround them.
More than 15,300 people likely have been infected by the hemorrhagic illness since the outbreak was first reported in March, according to the latest tally by the World Health Organization. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are most deeply affected.
Although headway is being made against the disease in some regions, including Liberia, more than 7,000 people are dead and more die daily. The disease continues to ravage neighboring Sierra Leone despite aid efforts.
“When I’ve told friends and family, they’ve had the same reaction,” Cowell said Friday, joining Phillips at his midtown home to discuss their trip.
“There is a pause,” Cowell said of loved ones’ reactions, “and then, like, ‘Wow, do you know what you’re getting yourself into? People die. The morality rate is really high.’ My mother and my sister and a lot of my close friends — there’s tears that follow.”
But after that, the nurses said, comes the support they hope for.
“My sister is getting married (in the spring),” said Phillips, who said she joked with him. “‘You have to not get Ebola so you can come to my wedding.’”
In recent weeks, the two prime humanitarian medical groups leading the fight against Ebola — Doctors Without Borders and the U.S.-based International Medical Corps, have reported a decrease in the number of volunteers willing to sign on for Ebola care.
The organizations report that the requirement that those in the Ebola zone spend three weeks at home in self-quarantine has cut into interest, often extending the typical six-week volunteer commitments to nine weeks, which is burdensome for volunteers who must take time from their regular jobs.
Jim Mitchum, CEO of Heart to Heart, said in an email from Liberia that the organization is close to being fully staffed for the next few months.
“However, we would always welcome interest from nurses and doctors who would like to serve in Liberia,” he wrote.
Cowell and Phillips, who did not know each other before signing on with Heart to Heart, aren’t six-week volunteers. They instead are part of the long-term team of medical personnel hired by Heart to Heart for its Ebola work, an estimated $1 million-per-month effort for which the group continues to raise money and seek government grants. Heart to Heart also is using volunteers from across the country to fly into Liberia for six-week stays.
Only after Cowell and Phillips signed on did they find out that they both had attended MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe. Although faith and a desire to help others guided their decisions to head to Liberia — “like a gravitational pull,” Cowell said — they had other reasons.
What spurred her, she said, was seeing the fear that accompanied events surrounding Thomas Eric Duncan, a resident of Monrovia who in September flew to Washington, D.C., and on to Texas despite having had contact with Ebola in Liberia.
He would become the first person identified in the U.S. to be infected with the disease. Duncan died in October. Two of the nurses who cared for him also became infected but gradually returned to health.
“It really made me want to go and help,” Cowell said, “to go and come back and educate people to show them that this is something we can overcome — and not just here, but globally. That it takes a global effort.”
Does Cowell have fear or trepidation? Perhaps a bit, she said, but not much.
“There is always a slight fear with the unknown,” she said. “But it’s more ‘cautious.’ As a nurse we deal with that all the time, people with infectious diseases. With the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the World Health Organization, I have extreme confidence in the protocols they have given us and the equipment we have. I have a lot of faith.”
Though cautious, she said, “I’m really excited.”
“I mean, we’re making history,” Cowell said. “Nurses like me and Zach and the team we’re working with, we’re making history. I’m honored to be a part of it.”
Phillips, who had volunteered before with Heart to Heart in Guatemala, said his motivation is somewhat different. A sociology and cultural studies major in college who went on to nursing, he said he has long been struck by inequalities in the world, the relative riches people in the U.S. have and how that abundance intersects with faith.
“I want to see if God is real down there among the people,” he said, and has already begun a blog at lovethewayyouliberia.wordpress.com, where he hopes to write about his work in Liberia.
In the emergency room at KU Hospital, Phillips said, he has witnessed much suffering, along with the bravery and faith that it can reveal in people. Despite that, he said, he also believes that life overall in the U.S. is rarefied. People are fed and cared for, have possessions and are educated in ways that are not typical in the majority of the countries on Earth.
“What I mean is that I have experienced God in a very abundant and privileged place,” Phillips said. “I want to experience where God is and what he is like for the poor and broken and destitute and desperate.
“It is easy to say (in America), ‘Oh, thank you, Lord, it is a beautiful day today. I have a new job. I got a promotion.’ It’s different to say, ‘I have lost four patients in a row. Now how do I walk into the next room and trust the world is a good place and there are still good things happening?’”
For their own reasons, Phillips and Cowell want to be part of that good.
“It just feels right,” Cowell said. “It just feels like I’m supposed to be doing this.”