SRU alumna fights Ebola in Africa

liberia villager

June 15, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - When a crisis strikes, Slippery Rock University graduate Trisha Wright takes the first plane out - even to Liberia.

The 1998 athletic training graduate, a prison nurse in McKean, put her own health on the line when she treated Ebola patients in Liberia for seven weeks. She worked 12-hour shifts as a night nurse at a 25-bed mobile hospital.

"I remember one day I was working, we lost five children under the age of 8 plus two adults. It was heart wrenching, but when we were able to release a person who survived the deadly disease, it made it all worthwhile," she said.

While the worldwide alarm about the disease has calmed since Time magazine named Ebola fighters its Person of the Year in 2014, Wright said she would answer the call again if needed.

"Would I go back? Absolutely ¬- if my husband and kids let me, that is. This was my first deployment, and I didn't know another person on my team before going. I honestly don't know how I was hand-picked for the team, but I believe that God had a plan for me to go over and help those who were stricken with Ebola."

Wright said she worked directly with those infected and also functioned as disease detective by taking blood samples to help determine how the virus changes. Ebola, spread by body fluids, is an infectious and potentially fatal disease marked by fever and internal bleeding.

The climate provided its own set of challenges, she said. "We faced temperatures of more than 100 degrees, which made patient care difficult."

"Every time I entered a hot zone, I was in full personal protective equipment, including a body suit, boots, two respirator face masks, an apron, hood, goggles and two pairs of gloves," she said. "It took me about 20 minutes to completely doff my equipment. There was no skin exposed at all."

"Ebola is such a deadly disease so there was always a bit a fear involved, or maybe I just respected the disease knowing what it was capable of doing," she said.

The U.S. Army and U.S. Public Health Services assembled the medical team, which operated within sealed tents.

The mission was to protect, promote and advance the health and safety of the U.S. "To protect our nation and help to keep Ebola out of the U.S., we have to go to the source and help eradicate Ebola there," she said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 10,332 people in Liberia have contracted Ebola since 2013, with 4,608 deaths as of May 2015.

"It was a life -changing experience and definitely the pinnacle of my career thus far," Wright said. She could only drink bottled water and rarely had hot showers. Toilets backed up and showered leaked.

"We slept on Army cots with bed nets tucked in around us and took our anti-malarial medications daily because malaria is so high in West Africa," Wright said. "All of these things we have

at our beck and call in America. Until you experience it first-hand, you just don't understand how bad it is in third world countries and how good we really do have it here."

Wright said she did sample Liberian food. "It mostly consisted of white rice with some type of topping, like pureed squash. They typically had meat, or hard-boiled eggs for vegetarians, and sometimes we got plantains. I couldn't identify the meat, so I went vegan while I was there. The rest of the time while at the unit, we ate military Meals Ready to Eat day in and day out."

Before traveling to Liberia, Wright, who admits being afraid of needles, had to get multiple vaccinations. They were for flu, meningococcal, pneumococcal, typhoid, rabies and yellow fever. She had to have a pregnancy test and pre-deployment blood work.

She said the experience helped her become a better person.

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   WRIGHT

"I've learned to live without a lot of the things we take for granted here in the United States," she said." We have such a variety of foods and snacks at our leisure. If we got a pack of M&M's in our MRE, we would save them and give them to the kids across the road from where we were staying. Just by their faces, getting candy was like we gave them a pot of gold. They were so grateful and so happy to see us Americans helping their country."

After graduating from SRU, Wright worked for 12 years as an athletic trainer at Kane Area High School. She received her associate's degree in nursing from the University of Pittsburgh and a bachelor of science in nursing from SRU. She is currently enrolled in the Clarion-Edinboro Universities master of science in nurse practitioner program.

In 2010, she became a clinical registered nurse for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where the mother of three works as an infection controls nurse.

"When called upon, like in the Ebola crisis, I can be pulled from my day job to support the mission of the USPHS if needed," she said.

After landing at Dulles International Airport, authorities sent her to a quarantined screening area. She was given a packet that included a thermometer, a list of Ebola symptoms and a cell phone so health officials could keep in contact.

"When I returned to Pennsylvania, the Maryland Department of Health turned over my active monitoring to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. For the remainder of my 21-day monitoring, I continued to keep track of my twice daily temperatures, spoke with or video chatted with a PA

Dept of Health Nurse at least once daily, and I also had to let the nurse know of any travel plans, whether it be to a nearby town or further.