Meet two nurses who volunteered for Ebola duty

Elizabeth Patangan:
Elizabeth Patangan: "I became a nurse to take care of people."
Elizabeth Aguilera/KPCC
Elizabeth Patangan:
Miguel Martinez: "I...feel we do have the right gear."
Elizabeth Aguilera/KPCC

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When administrators at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center began to formulate an Ebola treatment plan, they decided the cardiac ICU unit would be a perfect place to treat any cases of the virus. That did not go over well with the cardiac ICU staff.

"When that happened it stirred up a lot of commotion because no one was prepared for that, no on wanted it to be our unit and no other unit wanted it to be their unit either," says cardiac ICU nurse Miguel Martinez.

So hospital executives tried a different approach.

"The supervisors walked up to us in a group and said, 'Okay, who would like to volunteer?'" recalls Martinez.

Many said no.  There were a variety of reasons: they were afraid, they had children and families, they wanted to get pregnant soon. The 37-year-old Martinez, who is single, worried there would not be enough nurses to help.

"I started thinking, I don’t have any of those excuses that nurses are coming up with. Worries that they had I didn’t have," he says.

So when a supervisor asked him if he would be an Ebola volunteer, he agreed.

Martinez’ friend Elizabeth Patangan, 27, is also a cardiac ICU nurse.  After talking to her husband, she decided to volunteer as well.

"I became a nurse to take care of people, I feel like I shouldn’t decide if I should take care of them based on what illness or disease they have," she says. "Also, I think it’s important for the patient, that they want to have someone taking care of them who actually wanted to."

While some health care workers have been raising concerns that hospitals are not doing enough to prepare their staffs to treat Ebola, about  a dozen nurses and about 10 doctors at County USC  have volunteered to treat any cases of the virus that might arise.

Brad Spellberg, County USC’s Chief of Medicine, is "profoundly grateful" that so many  nurses have stepped up.

"The backbone of Ebola care, as is the backbone for frankly all medical care, is nurses," Spellberg says. "If we don’t have nurses we are dead in the water."

It has been more difficult to recruit doctors because the pool of critical care and infectious disease experts is very small, Spellberg notes. With the number of doctors and nurses who stepped up at County USC, Spellberg is confident the medical center could treat one or two Ebola patients.

Patangan says her entire family has been supportive of her decision. Several relatives have served in the military, so service is a family theme.

Miguel Martinez says he has had a harder time with his family, which, while supportive, has been extremely worried. He says his mother became so anxious that he eventually told her a lie: he said he had changed his mind and pulled his name from the Ebola list.

So far, Martinez says, only his pit bull Tyson has been unfazed. 

Patangan is also worried about her dogs, Zoe, a beagle, and Rusty, a beagle corgi mix.

"I think I’m more worried about my dogs than anything," she says. "I told my husband, if I take care of a patient you’re taking them to your parents house and they are going to watch them." 

The nurses have reason to be concerned about their canine companions. In Spain, the dog of the nurse who contracted Ebola was euthanized. In Dallas, the dog of nurse Nina Pham - one of the nurses who contracted  Ebola while treating Thomas Eric Duncan - was quarantined until she recovered.

At County USC, Martinez and Patangan and their volunteer colleagues have been learning procedures and protocols and practicing putting on and taking off protective gear. They say they have also done extra research on their own about Ebola.

Both volunteers say that recent changes in Ebola preparation - such as increased training - have eased some of the concerns they had when they first said yes. For instance, Martinez was pleased when the CDC revised its guidelines last month to require more elaborate protective gear.

"From what I observed just the other day I do feel we do have the right gear," he says. "Now it’s still ongoing. But I think the practice that we are going to have is going to reassure a lot of nurses that the manner in which we are approaching this is the correct way."

Martinez and Patangan hope that their volunteering will make it easier for others to join them on County USC’s Ebola team.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of joking around at work with the other nurses.

Martinez says one nurse is writing his eulogy. Patangan says Martinez promised to hug everyone after treating an Ebola patient.  

Joking aside, Patangan says she never forgets this is a deadly serious business.

"Sometimes I think about it when I’m going to work, is it going to happen today? Are they going to call me?" she says. "So you are always thinking about it. But there is always a chance of something happening in the field we are in."