Walk into the gymnasium of the Liberian National Police Training Academy and you’ll come across a maze so bizarre—and as it turns out so high-stakes—that successfully navigating it could mean the difference between life and death.
Welcome to the nerve center of the U.S. health care worker training program. It’s a replica of an Ebola treatment unit (ETU), where doctors, nurses, hygienists, and others learn how to safely care for Ebola patients while staying alive.
“Everything is about safety—the safety of the staff and the safety of the patients,” said U.S. Army Colonel Laura Favand, who helps oversee the Ebola health care worker training program.
During the week-long class, students first spend three days in the classroom where U.S. military doctors, nurses and medics teach them every aspect of Ebola care, from diagnosis and patient recordkeeping to proper disinfection techniques and safe handling of the dead.
Cross-contamination is the biggest threat in an ETU, which is why there’s an entire class dedicated to proper hand-washing techniques. Another critical lesson: how to take off protective suits, goggles, and gloves without inadvertently contracting the disease.
According to Colonel Favand, this is one of the most vulnerable times for Ebola health care workers.
“You’ll see someone getting ready to take their gloves off and their hands are shaking,” said Favand. “They know how important this is.”
Classroom time is followed by two days spent in the “mock ETU” where students are taught how to navigate in a clinical setting and practically apply all that they have learned. Actual Ebola survivors play the role of patients, offering invaluable insight into what actually happens in an ETU. According to participants, the survivors also help teach them how to communicate with patients.
“We learn some different terms in Liberian English that allows us to have a more accurate perception of the patient,” said Ephraim Palmero, medical director for the International Organization of Migration, an organization being supported by USAID to run three U.S.-built ETUs in Liberia.
“For example, instead of saying ‘how are you,’ Liberians ask, ‘how’s the body,’” Palmero explained.
Besides running the training at the Liberian police academy, the U.S. military deploys four mobile training teams throughout Liberia to offer the same course to health care workers who are unable to make it to Monrovia. Liberian health officials — in charge of training the next generation of Ebola health care workers — also take the class.
“I love doing this mission,” said U.S. Army Captain Alex Ailer. “I like that people here are being helped and that we are also helping local people help themselves.”
As of early January 2015, more than 1,500 Liberian and international health care workers have taken part in the training, including several USAID partners that are now running the U.S.-built ETUs.
“The training was incredible and great for me because it alleviated my fears,” said Micaela Theisen with the International Organization for Migration. “It [made] me feel good and ready to get to work.”
Her colleague Catherine Thomas agreed.
“The staff there, their medical knowledge was very comforting to us who were just starting out.” said Thomas. “They were just great.”
The Ebola Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) is overseeing the U.S. Ebola response efforts in West Africa. The DART includes staff from across the government, including USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services.
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