Errors in handling Ebola at Texas hospital

Elizabeth Castillo

The death of Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan and the infection of American nurse Nina Pham at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital could have been avoided if so many human errors were not committed by the Dallas-based hospital.

Duncan, the Liberian who was visiting family in Dallas, went to the hospital on Sept. 25. This fact is the first sign the Dallas hospital exhibited human error. At first, hospital officials stated his preliminary visit to the ER was on Sept. 26, and then the date changed to the evening prior. Shouldn’t medical records properly state when this patient first visited the hospital? This lack of knowledge shows how easy it is for avoidable cracks in a system to occur.

Then, on his first visit, Duncan was given multiple tests for his fever and abdomen pain (basic blood work, appendicitis and stroke to name a few) but then sent home with antibiotics. A nurse asked if Duncan had a travel history and he honestly told her he had flown from Liberia yet this valuable knowledge was not “fully communicated.” This shows another flaw in the hospital’s process. I would hope that information regarding a sick individual who travelled from a lethal-virus hot zone would be “fully communicated.”

After his initial visit, Duncan was sent home and was then admitted to the hospital three days later. That three-day period was probably the difference between him surviving this terrible virus or tragically dying. If the hospital had properly communicated during his first visit, not only could it have been possible for Duncan to survive, he might not have infected an American nurse.

The example of Nina Pham shows further mistakes the hospital made. An apparent “breach in protocol” has been the reason cited for Pham developing the virus. This reason is worrisome. Following proper procedural guidelines that the Center for Disease Control has recommended should be taken very seriously and in no way deviated. Although the specific “breach in protocol” has yet to be identified, it’s troublesome to know that further cracks in the hospital’s system are the cause of another Ebola patient.

I feel it is important to recount the mistakes that this hospital made because it reveals a very terrifying truth. A hospital located in a prosperous, first-class country, and in a major metropolitan area within this country could not effectively treat one Ebola patient. How are several poverty-stricken countries with no access to appropriate healthcare supposed to properly treat thousands of Ebola patients and overcome this frightening epidemic?

Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital serves as a paradigm for a larger issue. There are so many variables that occur when treating an Ebola patient—including human error—leaving a huge window for Ebola to continue its spread. Perhaps the Dallas-based hospital was understaffed that first night Duncan visited the ER. If so, this is another example of how this isolated incident in the U.S. relates to the bigger problem in West Africa. Health workers are continuing to quit or are contracting the virus themselves in West Africa.

Although Duncan was the first patient diagnosed with Ebola on American soil, the likelihood of a major outbreak in the U.S. is small. The Duncan case should not elicit fear among Americans, it should be seen as a measure of comparison as to how easy it is for this virus to be treated improperly. While the CDC is making steps to ensure Ebola is treated correctly in the U.S., it is important to realize that the major problem is still in West Africa. Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia need more help to fight this virus.

Ebola is not a one-time disaster like an earthquake or hurricane; it’s an ongoing epidemic that continues to see thousands of new cases each week.

While many variables remain uncertain when it comes to the Ebola virus, one truth is obvious: this epidemic will not end soon enough.