For the most part it was business as usual at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas on Wednesday. Patients waited to be admitted, staffers walked briskly to their cars after their long, grueling shifts end. But there was an eerie quietness in the waiting rooms and admitting areas: Besides the obligatory doctor-staffer-patient conversations, people weren't speaking to each other. The usual Texas friendliness, the typical enthusiasm to chat up complete strangers, was mostly absent.
The underlying feeling that pervaded the hospital was one of fear. In some part of this hospital lay one of the most dangerous people in the United States. And both patients and staff within the building were scared.
One valet, who asked not to be named, said he felt nervous to be working at the hospital now. "It's very scary," he said. "One thing I said is, 'How did this guy come in?' When people come in, they often get a valet, even in the emergency room. And when I found out he came in an ambulance, I said thank God, you know? Sometimes we have a car that comes in with blood on the steering wheel, and they don't know what's wrong. And we end up touching that."
Another woman, who also asked not to be named, was discharged on Wednesday after a minor procedure. She said the atmosphere in the hospital is noticeably different, and more tense, than in her previous visits. "A lot of people don't want others touching them," she said. "One guy was going to shake hands with a woman, and she backed up and was like, 'No!'"
Presbyterian Health confirmed that the patient, who has since been identified as Thomas Eric Duncan, reportedly volunteered his travel history when he first came to the hospital on September 26. He was released from the hospital as having symptoms of a milder virus.
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When Duncan returned to the hospital on September 28, he was immediately isolated. Still, he was infectious for a full two days after being released from the hospital. Texas Health officials were flustered and vague when asked about the potential mishap at the press conference on Wednesday.
"Regretfully that information was not fully communicated throughout the team," said Vice President of Texas Health Resources Dr. Mark Lester, referring to Duncan's travel history. "And as a result, the full import of that information was not factored into the decision-making."
Which might account for the general feeling of uncertainty within the hospital walls. One nurse said she thinks the hospital made a simple mistake. Duncan's symptoms mimicked the classic flu, and ebola would not have been her first diagnosis either, she said.
"A lot of my nurse friends are being really dramatic about it. And I'm sure there's going to be a ton of people coming in and freaking out," she said. "It kind of seems like a part of history, but I think a lot of people are making a huge deal out of it. Yes it's scary, it's deadly, but it's hard to contract. I've worked in an ER my whole life, and I just don't get dramatic. I have a better chance of getting hit by a car."