Eight years ago, Crystal Johnson, a 2014 Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) graduate, was watching Outbreak, a 1995 thriller about the U.S. response to a deadly Ebola-like virus. “I thought, ‘It would be great to wear that [protective] suit and do my job,’” she says. And when she had the opportunity, she didn’t hesitate to sign up for the Serious Communicable Diseases Unit (SCDU) at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, where she’s worked as a nurse for 16 years. “But I never thought such a situation would ever actually happen here.”

That all changed last summer when Johnson received a call informing her that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had activated the SCDU—a patient with Ebola was heading for U.S. soil. Dr. Kent Brantly had contracted the often-fatal virus during a medical mission to Liberia and was sent to Emory. Now, the hospital had just 72 hours to prepare for his arrival. Suddenly, cinematic fiction was reality and Johnson would likely be on the front line.

“My mom asked me if I could run and my brother suggested that I get my affairs in order,” says Johnson. Their concern was understandable. At the time, little was known about the highly contagious disease, which often causes death before patients can be studied. But she was resolute. “I committed to do this,” she says. “It’s my calling.”

A Team Approach

As one of just four nurses on the patient’s treatment team, Johnson found herself in a situation in which the typical clinical hierarchy went out the window. Instead, the focus was on trying to save Brantly’s life and contain the deadly virus. Dealing with this unprecedented medical emergency meant tackling new challenges on an almost daily basis. For instance, the nurses—who initially wore standard hospital gowns, not protective gear—were faced with the dilemma of working in an uncontrolled environment and then returning home to their families. Once the Tyvek® protective suits had arrived at Emory, the team struggled with getting out of the gear (a process known as doffing) without contracting or spreading Ebola. “Every day, we had to make changes to our protocol,” explains Johnson. “But we walked through it together as a family.”

Over the course of Brantly’s treatment—and that of his coworker Nancy Writebol, who also showed signs of Ebola—Johnson and her colleagues found themselves juggling multiple responsibilities that went well beyond the average nurse’s role. Essentially becoming the patients’ stand-in family—spending more than 7 consecutive hours caring for the patients because their families couldn’t interact with them beyond an observation pane—Johnson and her team stepped in to play NERF ball with Brantly, have a “spa day” with Writebol, and provide a shoulder to cry on. Johnson says her entire journey, including her time at Walden, prepared her for this experience.

Today, Brantly and Writebol are healthy—and the CDC is examining doffing procedures and adjusting treatment protocols both at home and abroad, based on lessons learned during the Ebola crisis. The emergency has had another impact, too. “The younger generation is so proud of what we did that they want to get into nursing now,” says Johnson. “People have seen a different side of what nursing is really all about: being selfless.” —Jessica Cerretani

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