Former Alexandrian Reflects On Stint As Ebola Nurse

ALEXANDRIA, LA (AP) — Paul Nordstrom's move from Alexandria to San Diego led to widespread acclaim as an Ebola fighter in West Africa, meetings with dignitaries and a phone call from President Barack Obama.

         Nordstrom, a 53-year-old nurse practitioner, left Louisiana for a new job and a change of scenery after "life took a left turn for me in 2013 with a divorce," he said during a recent visit to Alexandria. He there for 25 years; sons Nelson and Hudson both attend Louisiana State University-Alexandria and hope to get into its nursing school.

         That change ultimately led to his joining the American forces in West Africa whose health care work during the Ebola crisis last fall was covered by major news outlets. As a unit, they were named Time's Person of the Year for 2014.

         "Thank God for fools!" Phil Nordstrom, pastor of an interdenominational church in Knoxville, Tennessee, blogged while his brother Paul was in Africa. "Thank God for fools who run into burning buildings when others are running away. … Thank God for those who risk their lives to fight infectious disease so that it doesn't destroy all of us."

         While getting his nursing degree at Louisiana College and his master's at Northwestern State, Paul Nordstrom worked at Christus St. Frances Cabrini Hospital for 20 years in the intensive care unit and catheter lab.




         "He's very caring and always thought about the patient before himself," said Dale Villemarette, a former neighbor and Nordstrom's boss as manager of Cabrini's cath lab.

         Nordstrom joined the U.S. Public Health Service Commission Corps, becoming a lieutenant commander.

         In 2013, he transferred from the federal prison in Pollock to the one in downtown San Diego. Its clinical director, Dr. Jamal Gwathney, was the executive officer of 70 American Ebola fighters that President Barack Obama sent to West Africa last October, two years after the epidemic broke out there.




         The 25-bed hospital where he worked was built by the U.S. Department of Defense to care for international and Liberian health care workers and non-governmental organization staff infected with the virus.

         "Health care workers were leaving in droves," said Nordstrom, "because of their lack of support if they were infected with the Ebola virus."

         Nordstrom's "Team 1," which got one week of intense Ebola training in Anniston, Georgia, trained Team 2 on site. Team 4, the last U.S. team, was scheduled for recent arrival.

         Although Nordstrom is a nurse practitioner, he was employed in Monrovia, Liberia, as a registered nurse because that was the greatest need. He was Team 1's lead nurse.

         "He was one of the go-to guys on the nursing staff for high-risk procedures such as IV and blood draw," said Gwathney.




         Nordstrom said he was honored to admit the first patient — an African named Alvin, who got infected while working in a Liberian clinic.

         Nordstrom's team was there from Oct. 27 to Dec. 19. It set up and opened the clinic and treated the first 18 patients.

         "When a patient gets out, there is a survival wall and they'd put their painted hand on the wall," he said. Above the handprints was written, "Today I Am Healed, Tomorrow I Return to Heal Another."

         None of Nordstrom's team was infected. Their safety depended on the buddy system and their hazmat suits, he said.

         "Survival rates in Ebola clinics prior to our clinic were 10 to 30 percent," Nordstrom said. "The survival rate in our clinic was 65 percent at the time of our departure." He credited that improvement to a lab that "allowed us to daily monitor the patients' electrolytes and replace them as needed." He said every patient got an IV.




         The many dignitaries who toured the American facility while Nordstrom was there included Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Deborah Malac, the U.S. ambassador to Liberia. The mission was covered by most major news networks and newspapers. Nordstrom was a prominent presence in a team session photo on the Washington Post website.

         Nordstrom said President Obama called to speak to the group, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon toured the facility. He said he was honored to be part of a team of workers cited for "a hero's heart" in being named Person of the Year by Time magazine.

         Nonetheless, the real heroes, he said, were the patients.

         "These were health care workers who became infected while working in their clinics helping others," he said in an email. "Once healed, they now have a natural immunity to Ebola for up to 10 years, possibly a lifetime."

         The Ebola epidemic isn't over, he said, but infection rates have fallen near zero, according to a report in USA Today last month. This month the U.S. military mission, which reached nearly 3,000 troops last December, is scheduled to all but end.

         During a recreational trip to the ocean, he asked the Liberian driver why, in a country with such poverty, contaminated water, sewage issues and diseases, the people appeared to be so friendly and happy.

         "His reply," Paul said, "is something I'm going to try to live by: 'We find our happiness in each other and not things, and we live for the hope of a better tomorrow.'"

         – by AP/ Reporter Bob Tompkins with The Town Talk

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