Today is my 22nd day back from Liberia, which, as any reporter or health worker who has been in this Ebola hot zone will tell you, is a good day. Yesterday was the last day that I had to report my temperature to the CDC. I've passed the 21-day incubation period for the virus. My temperature is 98.6 degrees. I'm in the clear.
But three weeks ago, I wasn't feeling so good.
Coming back from my second trip to Liberia for NPR, I landed at Dulles airport in Virginia on Saturday, Dec. 20. Passengers from Ebola-affected regions are screened when they arrive in the U.S. Health officials hand you a cellphone for reporting your temperature and a list of phone numbers. They ask you a few questions about your exposure to the sick and the dead and tell you to check your temperature twice a day and report it to your local health department. If you run a fever above 100.4, you're to call the Ebola emergency hotline.
On Monday night I was at my girlfriend's apartment when I noticed a light tickle in the back of my throat. I felt cold all of a sudden; my brow was pooling with sweat. I took my temperature: 99.5. No reason to panic yet, but reason enough to go home and go straight to bed.
The next morning I woke up with a throat full of razors and a 101.1-degree temp. I took my temperature again: 101.5. I ran to the bathroom and looked into the mirror. My eyes were blood red. Sore throat, bloodshot eyes and a fever, all early symptoms of Ebola.
While I was in Liberia, I spoke to Dr. Senga Omeonga, who survived the virus. I asked him what it was like being sick, and as I looked down at my thermometer, I remembered what he told me: "I don't think there is any sickness that can equal Ebola symptoms — the way people feel in the body. It's a very, very unbearable disease." I took a deep breath and dialed the number for the emergency hotline.
I reached someone at the D.C. Department of Health, who put me on hold so he could forward my call to the epidemiologist on duty. After a 20-second pause he got back on the line and said, "The epidemiologist is out, but if you leave a message, he will return your call within 24 hours."
"Ummmm, really?" I said.
He told me that if my symptoms persisted, I should call 911 and explain my emergency. I asked him to forward me to the doctor's answering machine and left a message. (I got a call back a couple of hours later. The epidemiologist explained that the call had accidentally been forwarded to his office phone rather than his cellphone. Even with a specific plan in place, things fall through the cracks.)
That is when I called the office. NPR has now sent a dozen teams into Ebola-affected countries and had a plan for this type of scare. After a brief conference call with some managing editors, an intrepid Morning Edition editor picked me up to take me to the George Washington University hospital. In case I really did have Ebola, I rode in his back seat — this time, headed to the hospital as a patient rather than a reporter.
NPR alerted the hospital that I was coming. A nurse, wearing a face mask and latex gloves, met me at a side entrance and asked me to put on the same protective gear. I was then led into the emergency room, where I was met by a room full of curious and concerned stares from everyone there, and whisked into a room with a hospital bed. They closed the door behind me and told me they'd speak to me over a landline. They weren't taking any chances.
The phone in my room rang. A doctor asked me about my trip. Did I handle blood samples? Had I been in contact with monkeys or bats? Dead people? What was the nature of my reporting? I told them my team covered stories that were a step removed from the virus: how the disease was affecting the economy, the lives of children orphaned by Ebola. I hadn't been in close contact with the sick, and the GW doctors deemed me low risk.
Still, every precaution was taken. The doctor and nurse that treated me came into the room in spacesuits — personal protective equipment, as it's called. They put an IV into my arm, taking blood samples and administering a drip. Before they put the samples into bags, they smothered each vial with a Clorox wipe. They then had me repeat my story, took a strep test and gave me a sandwich. I was hungry. The fact that I had an appetite was a good sign.
When they were leaving the room, they explained to me that each time they came in and out, they had to carefully put on and take off the PPE. So I likely wouldn't see them again for a while.
Then, I waited. I texted back and forth with my mother, my girlfriend, my colleagues. I tried not to worry; it was probably strep or the flu.
An hour crept by and I received a call from the doctor. He said my flu and strep tests came back negative, so they were going to have to do more tests.
I asked if they'd be testing for Ebola.
The doctor said the CDC would make that call. My blood would have to be sent offsite to test for the virus, so the CDC recommends running tests for every other option first. But with strep and the flu ruled out, I was still pretty nervous. What if it were Ebola? Everything I've learned says that you need a lot of strength to beat it. I figured it wouldn't hurt to order some Middle Eastern carryout.
A couple of hours later, the food was delivered, by two doctors and a nurse I didn't recognize. But they recognized me. It was the team that had worn the spacesuits and the doctor I had spoken to over the phone, now in normal scrubs.
And they told me the results of the new test they'd run.
I had rhinovirus. That's another name for a common cold.
The medical team had shared this info with the D.C. Department of Health and the CDC. And they all agreed no Ebola test was necessary. They prescribed chicken soup and plenty of rest. I paid a hundred-dollar copay, received a call from the D.C. Department of Health asking me to keep monitoring my symptoms and was sent on my way.
As I left the emergency room, my head spinning, I let out a sigh of relief. I felt blessed to not have Ebola, but also to have colleagues that would risk their lives to help save mine, and blessed to live in a country where I have access to excellent health care. Not everyone is so fortunate.
I thought back to Dr. Senga Omeonga's description of the isolation ward in Liberia when he had a fever. "The ETU is like a living war or hell. It's like you're living in hell," he said to my editor and me. My experience at the GW hospital felt worlds apart from that description. Except it's not. This is one world, and we all live in it together.