Valérie Gruhn is an emergency trauma nurse and writer who has worked with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Kenya, Chad, Iraq, and, most recently, in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This year, she found herself on the front lines of a pandemic in New York. In this essay, Gruhn recalls the haunting parallels between her work as an MSF nurse caring for people diagnosed with Ebola in DRC and as a first responder caring for people affected by COVID-19 in the United States. She wrote this piece in April, as New York became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.
I start my shift by donning a yellow gown—first by putting my thumbs through holes that are made so the gown does not expose my wrists. Next comes the N-95 mask. I carefully wrap the loose strings around my head in hopes of preserving the seal that I need for the mask to work properly. Some of us keep the mask on for 12 hours, others only use it for those procedures that place us most at risk. I wash my hands again before pressing down on the mask to mold it to my face. A surgical mask then covers the N-95; I need to protect this scarce item in order to reuse it again later. Now come the goggles. I carefully place them so that they go over the top part of my mask. “We did this with Ebola, this should work!” I think to myself as I slip on my gloves.