May-June 2015 | Health

How Bethesda’s NIH Prepared for Its First Ebola Patient, Nina Pham

The behind-the-scenes story

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Phillips assigned staff to monitor the pipes, and trained them to quickly shut off any valves. “We are still monitoring them 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any leaks or other problems so we can proactively address them,” says Phillips, noting that the SCSU remains ready to accept Ebola patients at any time. NIH did in fact receive another Ebola patient in March.

In communications, the phone was ringing off the hook—not just from reporters, but from members of the public wanting to wish Pham well.

Cohen says he and his staff spent much of their time outside, walking from news truck to news truck. “Everyone wanted to get a shot of the hospital, but we had to be careful that we weren’t showing any patients in the footage,” Cohen says. “It was really a logistical challenge to protect patients’ privacy in a bustling space while also being as helpful and forthcoming as possible with the legions of media.”

As news updates occurred, Cohen and his team also pulled together press conferences on short notice. In one of the most important press briefings, when doctors announced that Pham was Ebola-free on Oct. 24, Cohen noticed that the large blue backdrop bearing the NIH logo looked unstable.

“I looked at it and thought, ‘Boy, that looks a little wobbly,’ ” he says. Almost immediately after that thought, the backdrop started to fall backward.

Another member of the communications staff stepped behind the backdrop and physically held it up for the entire hourlong press briefing. “There were scores and scores of reporters from around the country, and it was live on TV,” Cohen says. “So you can imagine how awful it would be for the backdrop to just collapse on people.”  

While nurses and other clinicians cared for Pham, another team worked to make sure her family felt comfortable and safe.

That task fell mostly to Jessi Kesler, a member of the Clinical Center’s Hospitality Services Department who served as an ambassador to Pham’s family. Among her first duties: finding them a comfortable place where they were close to Pham but out of the public eye. That meant the standard waiting rooms were out.

Kesler worked with Gormley, the Clinical Center’s COO, on Oct. 16 to find an office in an isolated corner of the Clinical Center, close to the SCSU. Then, on Oct. 17, Phillips and her team converted the office into a waiting room, removing the desks and cabinets and moving in couches and armchairs.  

“I think it was the fastest office move in the history of the NIH,” Gormley says. “From the time we identified the office and talked to the occupants, it must have been a few hours.” Housekeeping cleaned the room’s carpets and blinds, and Kesler gave the family a key.

Kesler also dealt with the mountain of mail, cards, flowers and gifts Pham received from strangers, including a batch of get-well cards on construction paper from a Bethesda elementary school.

“It was a strange challenge: How do you handle volumes of mail being sent to an individual who can’t receive the mail because she’s in isolation?” Gormley says. “You don’t want to give it to her family, because it’s someone else’s mail. You don’t want to withhold it from her. But then, you don’t want to pass along something that hasn’t been vetted, in case someone had a response that was not positive.”

A social worker spoke to Pham about whether she wanted to receive the mail. In the end, Kesler and the social worker went to the mail room and sorted the couple hundred letters and cards, plus packages and boxes, themselves. It took both of them to carry it all up to the SCSU.  

By Oct. 21,Pham’s condition had been upgraded from fair to good. After five consecutive negative tests, she was declared Ebola-free on Oct. 24. At a press conference that afternoon, accompanied by her mother, sister and NIH caregivers, Pham was smiling and looking healthy.

As joyous as that occasion was, many NIH employees say there’s another that sticks out in their memories.

It was the day after Pham arrived at the SCSU. While Pham had communicated with her family via FaceTime and phone, she hadn’t physically seen them yet.

So on Oct. 17, the nursing staff arranged for Pham’s family to stand on a glass walkway across a courtyard from her room.

Nurses called into Pham’s room to tell her to look out the window, and then watched as she locked eyes with her family. Kesler saw them wave to each other, and draw hearts on the window with their fingers.  

Amy Reinink is a frequent contributor to the magazine who also writes for Runner’s World and other outdoor publications. To comment on this story, email comments@bethesdamagazine.com.