A nurse's daughter disinvited to birthday party
The opposition by some area residents to treating an Ebola patient in Omaha was shared by some of the treatment team’s family members.
In early September, Sullivan called his wife, Erin, from a medical conference in Arizona to tell her an Ebola patient was coming to the Nebraska Medical Center. Sullivan would be helping to treat him.
“I was not happy,” Erin Sullivan said. “My initial reaction was being very scared. I had read a book called ‘The Hot Zone’ 20 years ago, and the Ebola virus has always stuck with me, always petrified me. So, yeah, I was upset. I was just, like, at first, ‘Jim, you can’t do this. You can’t do it.’ ”
The Sullivans have nine children, ages 18 to 2, and another one due in May. Erin home-schools them.
“My fear was the kids, mostly,” she said. “What’s going to happen to them or us if Jim gets sick?”
LuAnn Larson’s mother didn’t find out that Larson, a researcher and nurse, was treating Ebola patients until after the third Ebola patient was on the air ambulance to Omaha.
Larson told her mother, who was coming to Omaha from Norfolk to see a performance by the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, that she couldn’t accompany her to the show because she had to work that night. “That was a mistake,” Larson said. Her mother knows she normally doesn’t work nights. “That other Ebola patient is coming in to the med center,” her mother said. “They’re all getting research drugs. Are you ...?”
“Well, you put two and two together right,” Larson answered. A flurry of questions and concerns followed. “I finally just said ‘I’m not afraid, so you shouldn’t be afraid.’ ”
To varying degrees, Smith said, family members “express the fear that they have. Is something going to happen to a spouse? A parent? It’s normal.”
Hewlett said she sat down with her daughters, ages 9 and 6, and told them, “ ‘There’s a sick person coming and he really needs our help and I’m going to be at the hospital a lot taking care of him.’ That’s what Mommy does for a living, and they understood that.”
Vicki Herrera, who works in the public health lab and processed the patients’ blood samples, said her family and friends know what she does for a living and how protected she is. “There’s definitely lots of anxiety, and part of that just comes from people not understanding,” she said. “That’s kind of with anything – if you don’t understand it, you fear it.”
She explained to her kids, ages 11, 8 and 5, about the virus and that she would be working long hours for a while. “The 5-year-old was the one that missed me if I wasn’t right at home in time to pick her up from day care, but they were fine.” Her husband, Jon, a teacher and assistant football coach at Wahoo High School, ended up with “double duty some days. He had football and he had all the parenting and all the house.”
People weren’t always supportive. The young daughter of one of the biocontainment nurses was disinvited to a birthday party, said Kate Boulter, the unit’s lead nurse, and another nurse was told by her family not to come to their Thanksgiving meal.
A friend of Boulter’s told her that she wanted to go to lunch sometime, but not until after Boulter had cleared the 21-day incubation period for the virus. Boulter also was asked to speak at an event, but only if she could do so via Skype.
“There were people who have been disinvited to dinner parties or visitation of friends and relatives ... that has happened to almost everybody,” Smith said. “I would venture to say that every member of the team, their family has paid the price. They worry about them or maybe they’ve gotten a comment or two. Not much happens. But a little bit happens to people and it makes their lives therefore difficult.”
And then there were those who were enthusiastic backers of their parents’ work. Smith said his three adult sons encouraged him: “They’d say ‘This is your biggest professional challenge you’ve ever had. You’ve got to go for it.’ ”
Dr. Diana Florescu, an infectious disease physician and researcher, said her 17-year-old daughter, who wants to be a physician, “was so thrilled with all this. She wanted to come to the unit and help. ‘I can come! I know how to gown, dress up! I can do something.’ I said ‘No, you can’t.’ ”
Florescu’s husband, Dr. Marius Florescu, a nephrologist, also wanted to contribute. He would ask his wife about the patients’ kidney function to see if he was needed. He ended up working with the last patient, who was in kidney failure when he arrived.
“How many people had the chance to do dialysis with an Ebola patient?” Diana Florescu said. “If we don’t study and we don’t learn here, we cannot apply it to other patients here or in Africa.”
The Sullivans decided not to tell their kids about Dad’s Ebola duty. “The three older ones figured it out pretty quick,” Jim Sullivan said. “The rest of the squirrels didn’t figure it out at all for the first (patient). Then when we were getting the second patient, then everybody knew about Ebola.
“Thomas, who’s 13, he figured it out and he ratted me out to the little ones, and they were not happy,” Sullivan said. Sullivan found the couple’s 10-year-old son, Peter – “our cerebral one; he thinks about everything” – crying in a corner at home. “I’m, like, ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘You’re gonna get it, you’re gonna die.’ I’m, like, ‘We’re wired tight, everything’s fine.’ ”
Erin Sullivan had met Hewlett through a YMCA soccer team their daughters played on together. She said it occurred to her that Hewlett also would be taking care of the patient, “and she has two kids. Her kids aren’t any less precious than mine are.”
And then she thought about the other members of the treatment team. She asked herself, “Who am I to think that my husband shouldn’t put himself at risk when so many other people are, too? I can’t do that. That’s not right. He’s good at what he does. He can’t back out and say ‘I have kids.’ So do a lot of other people.”