NBC’s former chief health editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, has shared her experience of being quarantined in her New Jersey home last year after reporting on Ebola.
A quick recap from the 3,400-word story that appears with an “as told to Seth Abramovitch” byline in The Hollywood Reporter: Snyderman arrived in Liberia on a Monday night last September. One of the cameramen on her team, Ashoka Mukpo, had already been in the country four weeks. Two days after Snyderman arrived in the country, Mukpo came down with a fever. Two days after that, he tested positive for Ebola and was airlifted to the U.S. for treatment. Snyderman and her team spent most of what was supposed to be a reporting trip holed up in a hotel (although not in the one headquartering the U.S. military effort, as she suggests) before NBC hired a private jet to retrieve them.
It was an upsetting time. Just as Mukpo got sick, a Liberian man named Thomas Eric Duncan was dying in a hospital in Dallas. People in the U.S. were afraid of anyone who had been in West Africa, and especially anyone who knew a sick person. Anyone like Snyderman.
“I realize now that I was not sensitive to how frightened people were,” Snyderman says. When she returned home, she was put under voluntary quarantine in her home. When she was spotted out in her car a couple days later, the Internet went crazy. She became a sort of pariah. In the story, she says that since she did not leave her car, she obeyed the “letter of the law” but “didn’t take into account how just downright scared people were, and so it came off as phenomenally arrogant.” This spring, she left NBC, and journalism altogether, to go back to medicine.
Snyderman’s recount of her experience takes me back to last fall in a powerful way. I arrived in Monrovia just a couple days after Snyderman. We were staying in the same hotel. I remember how unsettling it was that Mukpo had gotten sick. How had he become infected? Would the rest of the team be OK?
And I remember the strange stigma of returning home. I wrote about it here, in fact. “It’s surreal … to return to the U.S. and find mild hysteria,” I observed. “To read headlines like, ‘Can Dallas Defeat Ebola?’ A woman on my flight from Washington, D.C., back to California is wearing rubber gloves. People seem confused and scared without knowing why.”
But this is where my experience differs dramatically from Snyderman’s. In her telling, she was confident throughout — confident she hadn’t been infected, confident that she was in the right when it came to breaking the voluntary quarantine. I didn’t have anything like the close call she had, working with someone hours before they developed Ebola symptoms, and yet my notebook is peppered with heavy doubt.
On Oct. 5, my Monrovia to-do list includes the item “Google Malaria med side effects … sore neck?” Ten days later, back in Los Angeles, I recorded my body temperature this way: “99.1°F !!!” (It returned to normal an hour later.)
Part of me is embarrassed to read my own notes from that time. I was not calm and cool. Knowing the science didn’t keep me from being nervous. But another part of me thinks my nervousness was realistic, even important. Being nervous was a reminder that I had a responsibility to do everything I could to avoid being infected, that in an epidemic, avoiding infection is an issue of public health, not just personal well-being.