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What An ER Nurse Learned From Ebola Outbreak And Now COVID-19

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. hasn't suffered from a pandemic like this in more than a century. But other countries have recently had to deal with very frightening disease outbreaks, like the Ebola crisis in West Africa. An American nurse who traveled to Sierra Leone at the time is now using that experience to help herself and other nurses cope with the coronavirus. Will Stone brings us her story.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Martha Phillips knows exactly how it feels to suddenly find yourself unprotected and up close to a deadly virus. 2014 in Sierra Leone, Phillips was at the bedside of a suspected Ebola patient when the piece of plastic covering her face came loose.

MARTHA PHILLIPS: I turned my head quickly, and my shield came off. So I'm in an Ebola treatment unit with a mask and my eyes completely exposed.

STONE: She stayed calm and quickly left the room. Phillips now lives in Washington state. Before coming to West Africa, she had worked as a nurse overseas, like in the Philippines after a typhoon. When Ebola hit, she was 35 years old and eager to help. Before she began, she was thoroughly trained in the precise way to take off your hooded suit and knee-high rubber boots, how not to cross your arms or touch your face. But she also learned sometimes you can't control what's about to happen, like when a woman collapsed in the nearby marketplace.

PHILLIPS: We drove into this market, this enormous crowd of people, found her, and she was really sick. And she saw us, and she tried to run. One of my national staff members literally reached out and grabbed her by the arm. The fear was so incredible. The fear was so overwhelming in the community.

STONE: She remembers one day in particular when more than 50 patients flooded into their hospital. They worked deep into the night.

PHILLIPS: We were out of supplies. We had no water. We had no - nothing to give them. We were just hauling them out of ambulances and putting them in beds, and then we had to get out.

STONE: It was immediate triage, who's dead, who's alive - like a war zone, she says.

PHILLIPS: There is nothing comparable to that kind of massive influx of terribly sick, terribly infectious, terribly distraught patients that I can even conceive of up until this point.

STONE: This point is coronavirus in the United States. Phillips is now treating these sick patients during her ER shifts at a hospital in Bellingham, Wash. And she's trying to make sense of how we got here - nurses and doctors reusing masks, wrapping themselves in makeshift gowns, even being told to use bandanas for protection.

PHILLIPS: Our government, they had nothing else to give and that we were on our own - that has affected morale in this country unimaginably.

STONE: She thinks about the nurses from Sierra Leone. She remembers when one got sick and being there when she was taken out of the ambulance.

PHILLIPS: That was one of my breaking moments where I was just so tired of people who wanted so desperately to help their country and to help their own people being killed by this disease.

STONE: Compared to Ebola, coronavirus is not nearly as deadly. But she still feels the same frustration and grief watching nurses everywhere get sick. And they come to her and ask her, is it OK to be afraid or even not to show up to work because there's not enough protective gear? And they're worried about getting sick.

PHILLIPS: And I think it is really important that we continue to tell them that they have nothing to be guilty about, that they have done their work, that they are not lesser nurses because of it.

STONE: In Africa, Phillips says safety was clear cut. You did not go into the Ebola unit unless you had the protection. But now in the U.S., many nurses feel forced to work when it's not safe. Philip says that can only backfire.

PHILLIPS: The most important person in that COVID unit in that hospital is yourself - period, full stop, the end. Because if you die, you're not going to be able to take care of anyone else.

STONE: Phillips has no regrets about caring for Ebola patients. But she and many others had to work through the trauma afterwards, which is why she's speaking up now because she knows coronavirus will be the same. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.