The first few questions I was asked upon entering the mock Ebola ward at this year’s TED conference in Vancouver were a little unsettling: Was I prone to panic attacks? How about fainting? No and no, as far as I knew–but then again, I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d react after spending some time suited up in the spacesuit-like protective gear that Ebola health workers have to wear every day.
I was visiting the Suiting Up for Ebola room at the conference–a Gates Foundation-sponsored experience intended to give attendees a dose of health worker reality (Bill Gates also did a talk on preparing for future epidemics at TED this year, see more on that here). It wasn’t completely realistic; I was in a climate-controlled room, and while the Ebola personal protective equipment (PPE) is heavy, the experience was nothing like being in a sweltering Ebola ward in Sierra Leone or Liberia.
Nonetheless, health workers who had been out treating Ebola patients in the field led the simulation, and the experience was startling.
The suiting-up experience alone was intense. First, I put on a pair of stiff rubber boots, followed by surgical gloves and a large yellow suit, zipped up in the front. Next came the thick surgical mask over my face. That was right around the time when beads of sweat started forming on my forehead and my breathing became a little labored.
I then put on a plastic apron, a protective mask to go over my head, a pair of plastic goggles, and a second pair of gloves. I was nearly good to go, but had to remove my glasses since they didn’t fit under the goggles. I was about three quarters blind. “It’s more realistic that way,” explained one of the doctors. Sweat and goggle fog often make it difficult for health workers to see.
As one health worker explained, sweat can be dangerous. Once a person’s face mask becomes sopping wet, they need to get out of their suit immediately. They are essentially being waterboarded by the mask. Even when that doesn’t happen, workers often don’t stay in the ward for more than two hours, lest they get lightheaded and start to lose their full cognitive abilities.
The next step: Someone wrote my name in a Sharpie on my protective mask, since I was completely unidentifiable. Then it was time to go into the ward.
Along with a few other people suited up in gear, I went through a series of challenges that would normally be simple if not for my poor vision and the PPE. First, I held a saline IV drip above my head for two minutes, squeezing it hard the whole time. In real Ebola wards, health workers actually have to do this for 20 minutes or longer. They can’t just hang the IV and leave it be, because patients might wake up in a panic, rip it out, and splatter bodily fluids all over the place.
After going through a few more exercises–sorting “pills” from a jar into a small cup, writing a math equation on a small whiteboard–it was time to move onto the doffing station to get out of our suits. By this point, I was full-on sweating.
Getting out of the suit was the hardest part. It went something like this. Get sprayed down with chlorine, pretend to wash my hands. Take off the apron, wash my hands again. Take off the gloves, wash my hands. You get the idea. Throughout the process, there were about a thousand moments when a single wrong move could have led to contamination.
There was one key decision that made my Ebola ward experience especially difficult: I declined to wear a cooling vest. These vests weren’t available to the health workers in the mock ward when they were out in the field, but they are being deployed now.
The vests came about when Gates asked a group of experts who research technologies to keep vaccines cool if they could shift their attention to a human cooling apparatus–a solution to overheating in the PPE. Tested by Intellectual Ventures’ Global Good fund, the vest couldn’t be more simple: It’s just a vest with pockets for ice packs.
Four weeks after beginning the search for a solution, the vest was being shipped out to West Africa.
Not everyone opts to wear the vest, since it is yet another layer to take on and off. It also doesn’t necessarily allow workers to stay out in the field longer, says Morgan Fowler, an engineer at Intellectual Ventures. But it does help them stay more cognitively alert while they’re working, since it slows the rise of core body temperature (and thus slows the process that makes people delirious).
Even in the comfortable climate of the mock Ebola ward, I was wishing for a cooling vest by the end. It is such a small thing, a vest, but one that make the lives of tireless health workers just a little bit better–and after dragging my wimpy self through the Ebola simulation, I can safely say that these people deserve all of the help they can get.