Ebola outbreak: Toronto nurse knows what it's like to treat infectious patients, and to be one

Toronto nurse Pat Tamlin empathizes with the Texas nurse who became the first person to contract Ebola in the U.S. after caring for a dying patient with the disease.

Pat Tamlin caught SARS in 2003 and was put in quarantine in Toronto

Nurses wear protective masks against SARS as they talk outside a Toronto hospital in 2003. For some health-care workers, the recent Ebola epidemic brings back painful memories of working during the SARS outbreak a decade ago. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

Toronto nurse Pat Tamlin empathizes with the Texas nurse who became the first person to contract Ebola in the U.S. after caring for a dying patient with the disease. 

Tamlin, a nurse in the intensive care unit at Scarborough Hospital, knows what it's like to work with patients in isolation. She also knows what it's like to be a patient in isolation herself. 

In 2003, Tamlin contracted SARS and was put in quarantine in Toronto. The difficulty, she says, is that as a nurse her job is so dependent on contact with patients, "but the longer you are in a room, the higher your risk of exposure." 

This 2010 photo shows Nina Pham, 26, who became the first person to contract Ebola within the United States. (Courtesey of Press)
Nina Pham, the 26-year-old nurse who contracted Ebola in Texas, repeatedly visited the room of Thomas Eric Duncan — the man from Liberia who died of Ebola last week — from the time he was admitted until the day before he died, medical records show.

She and other health-care workers wore protective gear, including gowns, gloves, masks and face shields, and sometimes full-body suits, when caring for Duncan but she still somehow contracted the disease.

The news brings back memories of the SARS outbreak in Canada from a decade ago. 

"The concern is that health-care workers work directly with patients," Tamlin told CBC's Metro Morning. "It's a situation where precautions are taken but it's still happening that someone is getting Ebola. Health-care workers are putting their lives on the line for another disease." 

Hospitals urged to 'think Ebola' 

U.S. health officials on Monday urged hospitals to "think Ebola" and launched a review of procedures for treating infected patients, while the World Health Organization called the outbreak "the most severe, acute health emergency seen in modern times."

Pham was among about 70 hospital staffers who were involved in Duncan's care after he was hospitalized, according to the records.

Tamlin says she deals with isolation patients all the time, and has been on both sides of the interaction between health-care workers and infected patients.

She says strict procedures for treating infected patients are not new. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden said he would not be surprised if another Texas hospital worker becomes ill. (The Associated Press)
"In isolations you'd be wearing masks, gowns and gloves. If you really felt you needed to there's visors and so on," Tamlin said. "Those are the sorts of things we deal with every day. The difficulty is sometimes I have to put on three gowns before i find one that has arms long enough for me, but that equipment has been around for a long time." 

As a patient she says the hardest part was being in isolation and away from her sick daughter, who was also diagnosed with SARS.

"Families can't come in to see their loved ones and it's very difficult," she said. 

Public-health authorities have since intensified their monitoring of other Dallas hospital workers who cared for Duncan.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden said he would not be surprised if another hospital worker who cared for Duncan becomes ill because Ebola patients become more contagious as the disease progresses.

Pham's name appears frequently throughout the hundreds of pages of documents in Duncan's medical records, provided to The Associated Press by his family. They show she was in his room Oct. 13, the day before he died.

Progress reports note he had loose, watery stool and nurses had difficulty inserting a needle at one point. Pham's notes also describe nurses going in and out of Duncan's room wearing protective gear to treat him and to mop the floor with bleach.

She also notes how she and other nurses were ensuring Duncan's "privacy and comfort," and providing "emotional support."

"You want to be with your patient and you want to spend time with that patient," Tamlin said. "Sometimes I have just sat in a room with a patient with my isolation gear on. Otherwise they are extremely isolated. There's very minimal contact. 

Despite everything she has been through, Tamlin says she never hesitates when it comes to treating infectious people. 

"I'm accountable for my own safety and I have to be diligent with procedures," she said.

With files from The Associated Press