ARUN RATH, HOST:
It is still too soon to say that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is over, but the disease that spread death and panic this past summer is declining. The outbreak finally began to subside after international volunteers flooded into the region. A top official in the Liberian Ministry of Health recently characterized the response this way - the world came late, but it came large. Who were those volunteers who ran toward the outbreak when the rest of the world was terrified of it? NPR's Jason Beaubien recently caught up with two of them - a pair of Vietnamese-American siblings from Fairfax, Va.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Last summer, Jen and Alex Tran were both itching to get to West Africa to work on the Ebola outbreak. Alex, who's 28 and an epidemiologist, landed a job first. It was helping the aid group the International Medical Corps build two Ebola treatment centers in Sierra Leone.
ALEX TRAN: From the period of October, when I got there, till the opening of our first Ebola treatment center in Lunsar was one of the most intense periods of work that I had ever really been a part of.
BEAUBIEN: Alex was involved with a team setting up the administration for the Ebola hospital, and he says there was very little guidance to help them.
A. TRAN: You know, in a lot of other responses been part of, there's always been, like, literature. There's been information. You can always, like, look on the web. But this - there was nothing. There was absolutely nothing, like, on this is how an Ebola treatment center needs to go down.
BEAUBIEN: His sister Jen Tran, who's a registered nurse, joined him in Sierra Leone in November. She recalls the first time she got suited up in a head-to-toe Ebola suit.
JEN TRAN: I think at first, I was like, all right, 15 minutes - I'm out. I'm done. This is ridiculous. It's so hot. I'm so constrained. And then it kind of just grew on you. I think the longest that I went in was probably two and half hours.
BEAUBIEN: The nurses were only supposed to be in with the Ebola patients in the red zone for 90 minutes or so. The time Jen ended up in for almost twice that was because the generator died. She says she was in the middle of setting up an IV drip for a patient.
J. TRAN: The lights went off, and I'm just touching the bed, touching his arm, trying to find the pieces that I need to close the IV line.
BEAUBIEN: There were a half-dozen other workers on the ward with her, but they couldn't leave because it was too dark to exit the wards safely. Taking off Ebola protective gear is considered one of the most dangerous moments for infection. While they waited, their goggles were fogging up, so they could barely even see.
J. TRAN: There was one girl - her goggles completely slipped off, and her goggles were right here. She couldn't see anything. She couldn't open her eyes. And you literally just had to hold her and lead her to the right area. So...
A. TRAN: They actually brought an entirely new generator after that. Yeah.
BEAUBIEN: Both Jen and Alex worked long hours. Jen says it was a hard place to be a nurse. The equipment was limited. She didn't have access to monitors or drugs that she'd have in a Western clinic. The majority of the patients on the ward were dying.
J. TRAN: In one sense, working with Ebola is just trying to get Ebola-positive, Ebola-confirmed patients out of the community so they don't re-infect people. So in some sense, it's like, oh, well, they can't stay here. They have to go to this confirmed tent, and that's where they're going to die. It was just - it was really hard. You couldn't really do anything.
BEAUBIEN: But she was so busy, she says, it was hard to take in the full magnitude of the situation. Jen and Alex's parents, on the other hand, had plenty of time to think, and they weren't thrilled about their kids being in the heart of the Ebola outbreak.
J. TRAN: So when Alex left, my mom was a wreck.
J. TRAN: And so we're Vietnamese, and the nurse from Texas who was at NIH - she's Vietnamese, as well.
BEAUBIEN: She's talking about Nina Pham. It was all over the news at the time that Pham had gotten infected with Ebola while treating a patient at Texas Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.
J. TRAN: And my mom's a worry rat, too, so...
A. TRAN: I think she was a lot more worried about you than she was about me because I wasn't going to be doing direct patient care.
BEAUBIEN: Jen stayed in Sierra Leone for five weeks. Alex stayed for 14 weeks. They both say they're considering going back. Alex says if he doesn't, he's been thinking about that refugee crisis in Syria. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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