“We’re here to help. We’re here to heal. And above all, we’re here to provide hope,” said Health Services Administrator Cmdr. David Lau from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Health Service Corps (IHSC). Lau’s words sum up the message and mission of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) officers who deployed to Liberia at the height of the Ebola epidemic to stop the spread of the deadly disease.
Four different USPHS teams responded to the call and joined thousands of U.S. civilians and military members, as well as individuals from the international community, to contain this rapidly spreading, often fatal, disease. Six IHSC USPHS officers deployed in support of this Ebola mission and on Sept. 29 at ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C., they recounted their experiences.
“I couldn’t feel any better about being an ICE Health Service Corps member than I do today,” said Capt. Luzviminda Peredo-Berger, IHSC Deputy Assistant Director of Clinical Services and Medical Director, who gave opening remarks.
Each of the members of the panel discussion spoke of their experiences in Liberia. The panel included: Cmdr. Lau, health services administrator; Lt.Cmdr. Eric Cartagena, field medical coordinator; Lt. Cmdr. Stephanie Daniels, clinical pharmacist; Lt. Cmdr. Tiffany Moore, infection control program lead and Lt. Jennifer Freiman, public health analyst. IHSC Personnel Unit Chief Capt. Diedre Presley, IHSC personnel unit chief also participated and discussed the process of acclimating deployed team members back to their lives once they returned home.
“We were dealing with a deadly disease with a 50 percent casualty rate,” said Cmdr. Lau. “We were scared. Conditions were horrifying with people dying in the streets and fear rampant. Clinicians too, were dying.”
But working as a team with one mission, they got busy, first working with the U.S. Navy Seabees, who built a specialized Ebola treatment unit, the Monrovian Medical Unit (MMU). The USPHS coordinated logistical and resource needs with the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, who flew supplies to the MMU. They dived into the “hot zone” to treat sick and dying patients with fluids, medications and nutrition. They conducted lab diagnostics and measured blood counts, electrolytes and other parameters. In humid 100 degree temperatures, they endured extreme discomfort in layers of personal protective equipment and took painstaking measures to safely decontaminate and remove it, a term known as “doffing.”
“At first, I walked slowly, methodically, thinking, wow, I’m in a biosafety level 4 area,” said Lt. Cmdr. Moore. Fear slipped to the background, however, when Moore encountered her first patient. “I did not hesitate to reach out, hold her hand and pray with her,” she said.
In a videotaped interview, Ebola survivor and Liberian national Alvin Davis said that because Ebola was like a death sentence, there was great fear and stigma surrounding those afflicted in his country. “If it weren’t for the U.S. Public Health Service officers and the care at the MMU, I would not be here today,” he said.
The experience changed the team members’ lives.
“The level of poverty we saw was unimaginable,” said Lt. Cmdr. Daniels. “I am grateful for everything we have in this country, from running water, electricity to paved roads.”
“I thank the good Lord for bringing me back home,” said Cmdr. Lau. “And I thank my fellow officers who served with honor and distinction.”
The ICE Health Service Corps serves as the medical authority for ICE on a wide range of medical issues, including the agency's comprehensive detainee health care program. ICE Health Service Corps staff consists of more than 900 U.S. Public Health Service commissioned officers, federal civil servants and contract support staff. The U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps is one of seven uniformed services of the United States. It is made up of 6,700 uniformed officers who are highly-trained, networked and mobile medical and public health professionals.