By Craig Spencer
Dr. Spencer is an emergency doctor and professor at Brown. He survived Ebola in 2014 after treating patients in Guinea and recently treated Covid-19 patients in New York City.
I’m often asked what it felt like to have Ebola. Eight years later, I still struggle to respond. But the truth is that having Ebola felt like guilt. Guilt for getting a diagnosis only hours after entering a hospital in New York, knowing my patients in Guinea waited in limbo for days or longer. Guilt for having so many providers care for me while remembering the dozens of patients I frantically treated simultaneously back in West Africa. Guilt for feeling helpless as my patients died, the worst possible feeling for any doctor.
In the initial days of my illness, I perseverated on my mortality — an understandable fixation, given the high probability I wouldn’t survive. But when it was clear I would beat the odds (as many treated in the United States ultimately did), I remember feeling solace thinking I’d never have to experience the sadness and despair I saw in those hastily erected hospitals in Guinea in 2014. Surely the world would never be this unprepared again.
In March 2020, as Covid surged into New York City, I was proved wrong. On many days as an emergency room doctor, I’d see more people die in my hospital — one of the nation’s best, in one of the wealthiest cities in the world — than I ever did while treating Ebola in West Africa. Covid was humbling; it revealed just how vulnerable we all are to pandemic threats.
I chose, as a profession, to respond to outbreaks across continents. And I accepted that doing so comes with risk. I and many other health workers around the world expect to continue to respond, as all evidence points to a future plagued by more pathogens and pandemics. But policymakers must heed the warnings of the front line. Being perpetually unprepared for global disease outbreaks is not the future society wants, but it’s our fate if we don’t lay the groundwork for the next pandemic threat.