University of South Carolina Upstate graduate Jodi Siddens cared for the country's first two Ebola patients and told current USC Upstate nursing students she'd volunteer for the special team at Emory University Hospital again.
Siddens, 30, a Greer native, graduated from Upstate's Mary Black School of Nursing, at the university's Greenville campus, in 2010. She worked in critical care at AnMed in Anderson County before taking a job at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital about three years ago. Emory has a Serious Communicable Diseases (SCD) unit with specialized protocols for caring for patients with Ebola and other diseases such as SARS.
Emory staff learned that they'd be receiving Nancy Writebol and Dr. Kent Brantly, missionary aid workers who contracted Ebola in Liberia, and asked for volunteers to provide their care. As a primary care nurse for the patients, Siddens was responsible for many aspects of their care, to reduce the risk of exposure to other hospital workers.
“I did lab draws, I was respiratory therapist, if I had to help with their breathing,” Siddens told a class of nursing students Monday. “I helped them eat, I helped them go to the bathroom. I did housekeeping. I had to mop up behind them when they went to the bathroom. 100 percent full and total care.”
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The SCD unit at Emory is isolated from the rest of the hospital and activated only under special circumstances. The hospital has stressed transparency, and the public may go to the hospital's website to view videos about how the staff uses their personal protective equipment.
Providing care meant Siddens spent a half hour each day donning a protective suit, booties, double gloves and a protective, positive airway hood equipped with a HEPA filter, inside an antechamber before going into the unit. She then took it all off at the end of a shift, making sure each piece was properly disposed of before showering and being able to go home. She checked her own temperature twice each day and watched for other symptoms of the deadly hemorrhagic fever that has killed thousands in West Africa and resulted in one death in the United States.
“It was a very stressful thing,” Siddens said. “You have to be so on point while you're in there. It was very fatiguing. But you have to be uncomfortable enough to remember you're in the same room with a deadly disease. And what I was a part of was so incredible. It makes it worth it.”
Siddens said she had always wanted to be part of a medical mission, and this was her chance. Besides, it's simply a nurse's job to provide care for the sick.
“Everyone deserves compassion,” she said.
Siddens said she talked to her two roommates about volunteering for the team, and told some of her friends and family, just to prepare them in case she did get sick. “I was apprehensive,” she said. “I had to think about my roommates' health and safety. I thought about my family. But I got a lot of support from them. They're very proud. And I took care of two amazing patients.”
Siddens cared for Writebol and Brantly for about two and a half weeks. She said the patients had to talk to their families through a glass window. They could not have direct contact with them as they received treatment. They knew that the disease could kill them.
“They're the most incredible people I've met,” Siddens said. “They're faithful people. They prayed a lot. It was pretty incredible to see them recover. It was life changing for me.”
One of the best moments, Siddens said, was being able to give Brantly a high five and a hug after he was released from the hospital.
“It was very moving,” she said.
Siddens said she's proud to be part of a staff that has such strict protocols and training. The Emory staff trains yearly and conducts training sessions with updates to protocols as needed during the year.
Siddens said she knows there is a lot of fear about Ebola in the United States. She said nurses at Emory even trained in how to handle patients at the hospital who weren't affected by Ebola but were concerned because they were in the same facility as Writebol and Brantly.
There is no cure for Ebola, but the U.S.'s health care system has many advantages over Africa's in providing supportive care for Ebola patients, Siddens said. Making sure patients stay hydrated and that their electrolytes are replaced is vital to survival. If a patient needs dialysis or a ventilator, those are so much more easily accessible in the U.S. In West Africa, a person living in a village who contracts the illness may not have easy transportation to a hospital, making early intervention much more difficult.
“It's different here than in a third-world country,” Siddens said. “It can come down to basic hygiene. It's become a global issue - it was kind of easy not to think about when it was just West Africa.”
That's why it's so important that other countries assist the West African countries most severely affected by the Ebola outbreak, and that borders remain open so both health care workers and equipment can be transported there.
“I don't think you can shut down the world,” Siddens said. “We can't live in fear. There are many more people that will die of the flu this year in the U.S. than Ebola.”
Many of the nursing fundamentals, such as proper hand washing, Siddens used while caring for Writebol and Brantly she said she learned as a student at USC Upstate. She said she'll volunteer for the Ebola team again if Emory receives another patient with the disease.
“It was an incredible thing to learn from,” she said.
Although the thought of traveling to Africa to fight the Ebola outbreak is “scary” to Siddens, she said she'd probably go if given the opportunity.
Students listened intently to Siddens' experience in class and asked questions. “To have someone in the field, versus reading about it or watching a YouTube video, I can't tell you the impact” Siddens will have on students, said Angie Davis, associate dean of the Mary Black School of Nursing at USC Upstate's Greenville campus.
Each year, Upstate professor Julie Moss takes nursing students to Ecuador or South Africa so they can learn community health skills in lesser developed countries. The university is exploring opportunities in China as well, Davis said.
“It's fantastic to see the impact our graduates are having on health care worldwide,” she said. “They learn the fundamentals here that they use no matter where they move to, and from here, the world is their open door.”