RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Ebola outbreak has now claimed the lives of close to 3,500 people. A large number of those fatalities have been the doctors and nurses who've been caring for the sick in the countries hardest hit by the deadly virus. The U.S. has already sent more than 100 healthcare workers and disaster response experts to West Africa to help stop the spread. American aid organizations are also sending people to help, but first they have to be trained. This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched one of these training programs at a former army base in Anniston, Alabama; and NPR's Nurith Aizenman went to check it out.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So welcome to the ETU. We wanted to brief you a little bit about the structure of this Ebola treatment unit.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: We're standing in a vacant, white-slab building rigged to look just like an Ebola treatment unit, or ETU, in Liberia. They've got the same orange, mesh fencing, barrels of disinfectant solution to wash hands and plastic mannequins lying on cots to stand in for patients. One of them is posed as if he's vomiting into a bucket. Today's class of 36 students pays close attention as Dr. Nahid Bhadelia lays out the first exercise.
NAHID BHADELIA: We're going to ask you to draw blood on a of couple people today.
AIZENMAN: It's a simple task, but any job becomes complicated when you're working around Ebola patients.
BHADELIA: The principle is how to transport safely the blood of the patient from a high-risk area to the laboratory. Do you remember the process a little bit? We did it very quickly in the class today.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You're going to take this specimen and place it in a - we were talking about a Ziploc bag of some sort.
AIZENMAN: Bhadelia nods, then details a lot more steps. Spray the outside of the bag with disinfectant, put it in a second bag, spray the second bag - it goes on. It may sound like overkill, but Bhadelia knows firsthand it's not. She recently spent weeks working at an Ebola hospital in Sierra Leone. Dozens of healthcare workers at that facility have contracted Ebola and died.
BHADELIA: I think, unless you guys have more questions, we're ready to send you in.
AIZENMAN: Time to put on the protective suits. The students use a buddy system to check each other as they pull on each piece of gear - boots, a jumpsuit, surgical gloves, head covering, facemask, apron. Heather Bedlion is a registered nurse and has worked in a disaster zone, but she's never put on this amount of protection.
HEATHER BEDLION: Never, never - I have not.
AIZENMAN: She figured she'd done a good job of suiting up, then her buddy pointed out an area she'd left exposed.
BEDLION: Right on the side of my face where the skin kept showing; the goggles weren't a fit quite right.
AIZENMAN: And when he said that to you, you've got a little spot, what did that say to you?
BEDLION: There's always room - there's always room for error.
AIZENMAN: Bedlion will be working at an Ebola treatment unit in Liberia.
BEDLION: I am leaving this weekend, most likely Sunday.
AIZENMAN: She flinches ever so slightly as she says this, but she says her family has been most anxious - grandparents, parents and friends.
BEDLION: The look in their eyes towards me and the fear that they had, and my response to them is I was taught in my life to take good care of people no matter where they were in the world; so please don't keep me from that.
BHADELIA: Now you're about to enter the high risk...
AIZENMAN: Mariann Schmitz walks into the mock patient ward in full protective gear. She labors to move under all the layers. She totters forward and steps into a basin of liquid to cleanse her boots. Then Schmitz makes her way to a mannequin. She presses a needle into his arm, under the goggles her glasses are starting to fog up.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And now I want you to go and wash your hands because you have blood on them.
MARIANN SCHMITZ: I do. OK.
AIZENMAN: Then it's time to disrobe and right off the bat Schmitz's buddy loses her balance and touches her. Then an instructor points out that Schmitz has forgotten to wash her hands after removing a layer, and that a flap on her suit that was supposed to cover her neck has been hanging open; and now her buddy is taking her mask off the wrong way.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You just got your hands really close to your face, something to be mindful of.
AIZENMAN: But the hardest part is taking off the jumpsuit.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: At this point you don't want to touch the outside of your suit anymore. So you only want to touch the inside.
AIZENMAN: That proves easier said than done.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Try it again.
AIZENMAN: Schmitz works at UAB Hospital in Birmingham. She's taking the class because she might become an instructor on this course, but she says she'll clearly need a lot more practice.
SCHMITZ: Even though I work in infection prevention in the hospital, it's very different from what we do in a hospital environment.
AIZENMAN: Then there's Michelle Niescierenko. She's had lots of experience in West Africa. She's an ER doctor at Boston Children's Hospital. And she spends four months out of every year training medical residents in Liberia, but she says that familiarity only made this practice session more unnerving.
MICHELLE NIESCIERENKO: Having been in Liberia I could picture myself standing in the mud trying to get that Tyvek suit on, and I can imagine doing that three times a day - the up-and-down of that is going to be exhausting; putting the suit on taking it off - fear, relief, fear, relief.
AIZENMAN: Niescierenko is returning to Liberia to teach doctors at regular hospitals - not Ebola wards - how to stay safe. She says it's inevitable that she'll end up treating Ebola patients as well, but she's consumed with worry about her Liberian colleagues. Already three of them have died. She says she can't imagine not going to help. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News, Anniston, Alabama.
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