Nurse Reflects on Tour Treating Ebola Patients in Sierra Leone

The New York Times
May 15, 2015
Nurse Reflects on Tour Treating Ebola Patients in Sierra Leone

Lindsey Hallen, RN, Lenox Hill Hospital

Returning from the Ebola zone, Lindsey Hallen worried that she would be swallowed by the petty concerns of her life as a nurse in New York City.

“I didn’t want to forget,” Ms. Hallen said last week.

But she discovered that while away, she had lost any sense that things revolved around herself and her career.

“I’ve been waiting for like a really, really bad day when I’m so overwhelmed at work, and it hasn’t come yet,” Ms. Hallen said, laughing.

 Ms. Hallen, 31, a nurse at Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, was the subject of a Jan. 18 Metropolitan section article, as she left for West Africa as a volunteer on the front lines of the Ebola epidemic. Preparing to join Partners in Health, a Boston-based aid organization, Ms. Hallen dealt with the curious questions of colleagues about her motives, and the worries of her family. At the last minute, she had to choose between putting her life in danger by treating Ebola patients directly in Sierra Leone, or being posted to Liberia, where she would be involved in infrastructure building. She chose Sierra Leone, a decision she does not regret.

 Ms. Hallen in Sierra Leone with Stephen Scheffler. Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times She worked at the Maforki Ebola treatment unit in the northern district of Port Loko. Nurses and doctors did essentially the same work.

In eight-hour shifts, they moved between the “suspected” Ebola ward and the “confirmed” ward, spending two hours at a time in sweltering personal protective gear. Medications were basic — anti-emetics for vomiting, antibiotics, anti-malaria drugs and intravenous fluids — but sometimes in short supply. Electrolytes came in glass ampuls that were hazardous to use, because they often broke and cut the hands of those who opened them.

The hardest times were when children died. “Nothing would really have to be spoken about it, but you know that you kind of shared that moment with somebody,” Ms. Hallen said.

But she said she was never nervous about her own safety. “It was just kind of, you got to do it.”

Ms. Hallen had a private room and bathroom, but no running water, in a compound called the Sugar Shack. She showered and flushed the toilet with buckets. She quickly tired of rice in cassava leaves and fish, and regretted not having brought more snack food from home. Friends living in a nearby Danish camp would sometimes bring her “gourmet” bread and cheese for lunch.

Despite the hardships, Ms. Hallen extended her tour to eight weeks from six.

On the morning of the day she was leaving, March 11, her group was called to an emergency meeting. “We kind of knew right away that it was not going to be good news,” she said. They were told that one of their American colleagues had been infected with Ebola.

As a van took Ms. Hallen to the airport, she saw living quarters being taped off and people decontaminating the premises.

“It could have happened to anybody,” she said.

The sick American, who was not identified, was flown to the clinical center of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., for treatment. A few days later, a Sierra Leonean community health officer working at the same unit was found to have Ebola as well.

To avoid 21 days of quarantine in her studio apartment, Ms. Hallen flew to Montana, where she was allowed to go out, as long as she stayed three feet away from other people.

Now back at work, she has not forgotten. “I did what I could to help the people there, but I feel like I really got so much more out of it than I could have imagined,” she said. She wants to go back.

Focus onHealth TV

Watch Focus onHealth, Northwell Health's TV show. It's the healthy way to stay informed!