As panic over Ebola swept the United States last fall, Nina Pham became the American face of the disease. Pham, a 26-year-old nurse, contracted the virus while caring for Ebola-stricken Thomas Eric Duncan at Dallas’s Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. Her plight was highly publicized: Animal lovers worried that her Cavalier King Charles spaniel would be euthanized (he wasn’t), and Texas Health Presbyterian released an emotional video of her in her hospital bed. When Pham recovered and emerged from Maryland’s National Institute of Health (where she was sent after receiving her initial treatment in Dallas), reporters documented her reuniting with her dog and hugging President Obama.
But it turns out that Pham’s story was less heartwarming than many would like to think. On Sunday, the Dallas Morning News reported that she plans to sue Texas Health Presbyterian and its parent company, Texas Health Resources, for failing to provide her and her colleagues with adequate training and resources to care for Duncan and for ignoring her requests for privacy.
Pham told the Morning News that “the extent of her Ebola training was a printout of guidelines that her supervisor found on the Web.” She also said that decisions about how those treating Duncan should protect themselves from his contagious illness were made “on the fly”:
The day Duncan moved to ICU, Pham said, she and the charge nurse went in with double gloves taped to double gowns and wore double booties and a face shield. The hospital did not have hazmat-type suits, and Pham said her neck was always exposed. “We’ve had nurses that I’ve worked with that worked in other states, and they worked in hazmat suits for flu and H1N1,” Pham said. “Why aren’t we wearing hazmat suits for Ebola?”
After days of asking for them, hazmat suits were finally given to Pham and her coworkers. Meanwhile, “no one” came to collect Duncan’s soiled (and extremely hazardous) linens and other items, which ended up sitting in piles in a nearby room.
Pham said that when it became clear that she probably had Ebola, “I wanted to protect my privacy, and I asked several times … to put be as ‘no info’ or at least change my name to Jane Doe. I don’t think that ever happened.” Pham’s attorney, Charla Aldous, put it more bluntly, saying that Texas Health Resources “used Nina as a PR pawn.”
According to the Morning News, Pham, who says she still suffers from nightmares, insomnia, and body aches, is seeking damages “for physical pain and mental anguish, medical expenses and loss of future earnings.” Additionally, she wants to “make hospitals and big corporations realize that nurses and health care workers, especially frontline people, are important. And we don’t want nurses to start turning into patients.”
The announcement of Pham’s lawsuit comes just days after Dr. Craig Spencer, who was hospitalized with Ebola in New York City after treating patients in West Africa, published an essay criticizing the way politicians and the media addressed his case. “I know how real the fear of Ebola is,” he wrote. “But we need to overcome it. We all lose when we allow irrational fear, fueled in part by prime-time ratings and political expediency, to supersede pragmatic public health preparedness.”