Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Ebola

I intended to talk about Bill Moyers today but Fannie Flamingo flew into town and immediately came to my house and insisted I talk about Ebola.

For those who are not familiar with Fannie, well….she’s just kind of hard to explain.  Some people have said that she is my imaginary friend, a first symptom of Alzheimer's, or maybe an alter ego of some sort.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Fannie is real.  OK, real to me. OK, maybe a little bit imaginary.

I’ve known Fannie since 1999.  I don’t write much about her unless she asks me to.  She never sought any glory for her role in NYC after the Twin Towers fell so I never wrote about that.  (Her bright pink feathers were the only thing people could see through the dust as she led them across the Brooklyn Bridge to safety. She got a nice plaque from Mayor Giuliani.) She is very big on saving her fellow fowl and when London banned the feeding of the pigeons in Trafalgar Square she chained herself to the statue of Lord Nelson and sat holding a sack of bird seed.   She takes Social Justice very seriously.  Very seriously.


She usually comes into town during the State Fair to visit her sister, Fernie.  Fernie has a Funnel Cake stand.  Fernie used to stay with us during the Fair but stopped when we moved out to the country.  I was kind of relieved at this since Fernie takes over my kitchen and makes a big mess.  She learned to cook at CafĂ© du Monde in New Orleans. The only kind of food Fernie can cook is the fried stuff and she always throws powdered sugar on anything she makes. The combination of oil splatters dusted with powdered sugar is almost like concrete.

All Fannie could manage today was a quick ‘hello’ then she flew over to the Dallas hospital where the Ebola patient is staying.  Then she left to go back to Liberia to work there.

One thing Fan did say, though, was that I needed to tell people how hard the medical people were working to help the patients and to stop the spread of the disease.

She didn't need to remind me because I've seen this with my own eyes.  In Guatemala.  Working at a medical clinic.  I watched doctors work, listened to their stories, recognized the love in their voices. They invited me to watch a cleft-lip repair.  They treated their patients as though they were the most important person they had seen all day.  When the wealthier citizens of the town, who could pay, asked to be treated the doctors said they would have to wait until the poor of the town had been seen.

Now, sometimes folks ask me what I was doing on a medical team holding a free clinic in Las Casas, Guatemala. I went as a cook.  And I was on the bottom rung of the kitchen staff.  I didn't do the main course.  I didn't make the desserts.  I mostly peeled and chopped stuff—carrots, potatoes, bananas, and pineapples.

We had an interesting sanitation protocol, this being a medical bunch who understood a thing or two about germs.  The municipal water isn't safe to drink because of the germs it holds. As you walked into our dining room you had to wash your hands with a bar of soap, rinse them with the tap water and then dip your hands into a bowl of sanitizing solution to wash any germs from the rinse water. For the fruit and vegetables we soaked them in pots of sanitizing solution before slicing them with a knife; otherwise, the germs on the outside of the fruit would get on the part you eat during the slicing operation.

So, I know how seriously doctors take germs. 

I also made the Jello for 60 people. I’m now an expert at Jello. If you ever have a party for 60 people and decide to serve Jello I’m your gal. We were using a hospital built by the United States so we had a great kitchen.  There was a huge walk-in refrigerator with shelves where I could put the Jello to cool.

Doctors can get a bit competitive with the things they were treating.  A common topic was the size of the tumors they had removed.  Since people never had money for a doctor, any medical condition went far longer and got far worse before the person either died or a free clinic came to town. I might hear a conversation like this around the dinner table:

“I removed a five pound tumor just now.” 
“Well, that’s nothing I took out a ten pound one yesterday.”

And don’t get them started on hernias or you’ll be there all day.

But I was still surprised at their reaction when one doctor thought his patient showed signs of having recovered from small pox. Small pox is generally thought to be extinct since no new cases have been reported in a long time.  If this patient had been afflicted with small pox it would be major news in the medical community.  And probably merit an article in a medical journal. So the excited doctor had taken some blood samples and intended to take them back to the US to analyze.

And the logical place to store the blood samples was in the kitchen fridge.  Next to my Jello.  None of the medical people seemed phased by having small pox cooties right next to my Jello but it was the end of my own consumption of Jello.

It turned out to be a false alarm.   And the poor doctor didn’t get his article in the medical journals. But I learned how serious these people take their ministry.

I really should have known it already.  My dad was a doctor, after all.  And I can tell you he was curious about everything. He would sometimes diagnose people appearing on TV.  He said he could see by the pupils in someone’s eyes that they might have a certain condition. If there was any mystery afoot and it was medical, Sam Stuart wanted to be in on it. 

Fighting a disease like Ebola is a challenge that I’m sure these doctors are taking as a ministry of a lifetime. They don’t get alarmed because they know the disease.  They know how it is spread. They have more confidence fighting Ebola in the US where we have equipment like kidney dialysis versus a poor country that doesn’t have the same weapons in their arsenal.


Let’s all calm down about Ebola.  And worry, instead about the Enterovirus that can kill children overnight without a clue.  Wash your hands.  Wash them well.  Wash them frequently. Use Purell. Get your flu shot.

PS.  So now it's Wednesday afternoon and the news is out that the guy hospitalized in Dallas has died. I am so very sorry to hear this. I was expecting state of the art equipment and drugs to save his life.  And found out otherwise.

What I understand of the Nigerian culture is that one of their cultural habits is to wipe your hands on the dead body of the deceased relative then wipe your hands on your own face.  This makes sense in their culture to transfer some wisdom or power from the deceased to the living. And who am I to judge any culture's customs? But it's also a really good way to transmit the disease from one person to another. Clearly, they need to drop that custom for a while, a least for people they know have died of Ebola. But it's also hard to change age-old cultural customs.

But I stand by my defense of the hardworking professionals who bring this story to us:  the journalists who want to report the truth to everyone.  And the medical people who only want to help, who find a challenge in this disease and who will continue to treat the sick while taking intelligent moves to avoid contaminating themselves and others.

What I neglected to say when I talked about my father is that his business card said his speciality was "Internal Medicine and Diagnosis." It wasn't until recently I realized I never heard of anyone with the "Diagnosis" specialty.  It sounds like if a doctor didn't know what was wrong with someone they could send them to Daddy and he would diagnose the illness. Daddy loved to figure out what was wrong with people.  Almost like if you combined Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson into one character instead of two.

I say this because I know there are doctors out there yearning to figure this thing out. They will start with finding every person who had any contact with "patient zero." In Dallas they have already done this and quarantined those people.

It was medical sleuthing like this that sent John Snow to disable the water pump on Broad Street in London during the Cholera epidemic of 1854.  He made a map of all the deaths and superimposed it over a map of the water pumps and realized the common factor in the deaths had been access to water from one pump located on that street. When Snow was finally able to convince the city officials to remove the handle of the Broad St pump the cholera epidemic died out.

Many more medical discoveries have been made since 1854.  We have advanced so far in medicine we fall into a trap of thinking we can fix anything today. We were hopeful that our current tools like dialysis would be enough to allow Thomas Eric Duncan to recover.  We still have things we cannot cure.  There is always the next puzzle to solve.  Personally, I would be estactic if we could figure out either a cure or prevention of mental illness. But I also know there are scientists out there who love nothing better than that and are busy at work right now.

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