An Irish American who was one of eleven people treated for an Ebola infection in the US during the West Africa outbreak in 2014-2016 has come forward with his story.
Preston Gorman, now 38, grew up in Cedar Hill, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. He trained as firefighter and paramedic, and later went to school to become a physician assistant, The Washington Post reports.
When Ebola broke out in West Africa, he quit his job and volunteered to work with the Boston nonprofit Partners in Health, which had opened its first treatment center in Maforki, a community in Sierra Leone.
Gorman arrived in Sierra Leone in March 2015, after a week of training. He spent a few days shadowing other caregivers at the treatment center, then was sent to a government hospital in nearby Port Loko to manage a men’s ward.
Gorman was not required to wear a protective suit there. Anyone suspected of Ebola infection was separated at the entrance and sent to a treatment center.
One morning at a meeting, he passed out, from what he thought was dehydration, and went back to the living quarters in Maforki to recuperate. The following day he awoke with a high fever, a sign of Ebola infection.
Gorman was quarantined and all of his possessions were confiscated and presumably burned.
“Somebody came in and dropped a [protective] suit on the floor and said, ‘Put this on,’ because I was going to isolate myself.”
He then had to endure a painful two-hour journey traveling over the rough roads of West Africa to a treatment facility for caregivers run by the British Army. In the back of the ambulance he began to vomit, another symptom of Ebola.
“I’m hurling all over the back of that thing. I mean, it’s just . . . a sheet of vomit back there.”
At the end of the journey, the driver banged on the wall and said: “We’re here.” Gorman had to get himself out of the ambulance and into the treatment center.
Arrangements were made to evacuate him to the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md. He had to spend four hours riding to the airstrip in the back of another ambulance followed by a 16-hour flight.
“I’ve got two IV’s and I’ve got two catheters sticking out of me that I’m going to have to take with me on this damn ambulance and be all by myself the whole time. Nobody was gonna get in the back,” Gorman said.
“It’s terrible. I’ve never felt that lonely.”
Gorman had been in Africa for only 19 days. He still does not know how he contracted the disease.
Once on the plane, a nurse gave him drugs to ease his pain. Upon arrival at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, where Gorman was placed in a plastic bubble and taken off the plane on a conveyor belt, he was met by Daniel Chertow, one of the doctors who would provide his care.
Chertow, who rode with him in the back of an ambulance to NIH, told Gorman: “We’re going to take care of you.”
“I’ll never forget that,” Gorman told The Washington Post.
Gorman would spend months in isolation at NIH’s Special Clinical Studies Unit.
According to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and one of the doctors who treated Gorman, Gorman was one of the sickest patients ever housed in the unit.
At NIH, Gorman’s organs began to fail and he developed brain inflammation. He was asked and agreed to take an experimental drug called ZMapp that was rushed into clinical testing, but a computer randomized him to the control group and he did not receive the drug.
He was sedated for ten days and put on a ventilator. Doctors were going to put Gorman on dialysis, but then his kidney function began to stabilize. His other organs slowly started to improve.
“Sooner or later, if you can maintain someone the way we maintained Preston, chances are the immune system will clear the virus,” Fauci said.
Twenty-five days after he arrived at NIH, Gorman was moved out of isolation.
“And for the first time in a month, I get to have human contact. And the first person in the room is my mom. . . . And she gave me a great big hug. . . . And then the second person is my girlfriend. She gives me great big hug.”
Two days later, he was released from the hospital and flown to his parents’ home outside Dallas.
Over the next few years, as he slowly recovered physically, Gorman battled with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He struggled to connect with his family, friends or girlfriend and felt utterly alone.
“I was happy to be alive. But I was now instantly confused. It was like my sense of security, stability, everything had just been stripped like overnight,” he said.
“Is anyone going to get this?”
He said he felt enormous pressure to get on with his life.
“No one said, ‘You’ve just been selected for a really hard journey, and by the way none of your family is gonna understand, none of your friends are going to understand and you’re not going to understand,’ ” Gorman recalled. “They’re thinking it’s all over, and I walk into this group of people, and I don’t even know what’s happening.”
He broke up with his girlfriend and eventually moved out of his parents’ home and cut himself off from his family.
“What I felt was deep, significant, shame,” he said. “Like a catastrophic level of shame.”
Gorman went to a psychiatrist, who prescribed medication, but he says he didn’t find it much help. Gorman said the only people who seemed to understand what he was going through were co-workers who had been in Sierra Leone with him.
In late 2016, Gorman went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He wasn’t drinking heavily but he thought it was a place where he could talk about his problems. Someone there referred him to a therapist who specialized in trauma. Gorman continues to see him.
In early 2017, Gorman checked himself into a mental health treatment center in Tucson for several weeks. He said it was there that he began to understand the different ways the trauma affected him and his family.
Then last year, Gorman was befriended by Peter Hubbard, 68, who runs groups where men explore their emotions and expectations. Gorman said that other than therapists, Hubbard has made the biggest difference in his recovery.
He has also started attending a faith-based program that assists people with change, and he has found a job he likes at the University of Texas urgent care clinic.
He still struggles at times, but he is slowly reassembling his life.
“It forced me to dig deep, find out who I really was, and rely on God’s direction in the healing process that is still ongoing to this day,” said Gorman. “There were many mistakes and dark moments. But a journey that, I hope, in the end will be worth it.”