Some people hailed him as a hero who traveled to West Africa to help others suffering from a frighteningly fatal disease. Others called him selfish and irresponsible and said he put the health of hundreds of New Yorkers at risk. Now, Dr. Craig Spencer, is talking exclusively with WNYC about his time in Guinea, his life changing diagnosis, the backlash and the mission to stop Ebola.
Doctor Craig Spencer also spoke with On the Media about the repercussions of the media coverage of his infection.
Below are transcript highlights from our full interview with Dr. Spencer:
On why he went to Guinea:
I had been talking with a good friend of mine, Tim, who had been a few different times and I talked about what he had seen and how important it was to have more responders and how there wasn’t enough people on the ground. … I thought about it quite a bit more when I was in Congo working on another project and talked with Morgan (his fiancée), talked with some friends and ultimately decided I thought it was something that I should be part of.
On conditions on the ground there:
There were people (physicians) that had been on the ground literally every single day for six months and had been working 12 to 14 hours, six, seven days a week and were just tired and exhausted and you can tell that these doctors were committed because it was their communities and it was their families and it was their friends that were dying. And so they refused to take a day off, but you can tell they were just exhausted. They were falling asleep in the middle of the day and we all had a big discussion and said, “this just isn’t safe.”
On the threat of exposure:
It was all day, every day. Anytime you dressed up or took something off, anytime you touched something. Anytime you interacted with someone, anytime you ate something, you thought about it. It wasn’t just me, it was everybody, because it’s an invisible enemy that could be anywhere and it takes one particle. That’s it.
Is it something we talked about? No, not really. I think we all thought there was a weakness in saying we didn’t really feel right or we thought that we might get infected. I think we all just wanted to be really proud of the work that we were doing and not really talk about the possibility even though we all knew it was there.
On the moment he found out about his fever:
I didn’t feel quite right, I was breathing a little faster, felt a little warm, and I suspected that maybe I wasn’t okay. So I got up and sat on the couch and thought for a second, and took my temperature, and it was 100.3 ... And in a way for this one brief second it was almost a sigh of relief – the moment I’d been fearing and concerned about had arrived – I felt not at peace – but I could stop worrying about it if it had already come.
On how he learned about his diagnosis:
[Dr. Laura Evans] said, “You know the test has come back and it’s positive.” And just sat there with me for a while and kind of sat in silence and thought about what this means and the next question I had was, “OK, what do we do next?”
What the quarantine of Morgan as well as my other two friends, what that did is send a message that this isn’t because we’re afraid of you guys getting sick. It’s that we’re afraid of the fear and we need to do something to quell that. Because it doesn’t make sense.
What happened in the aftermath of the quarantine is that a lot of people who had committed to going to the response in West Africa, pulled out. Again, not because they were fearful of what they would do there, but how they would be treated on their return back home.
On being the center of a media story:
I thought that my sickness and my message was extremely minimal and insignificant compared to the larger message that we weren’t tackling and that was there’s still a crisis. Ebola still rages in West Africa. There was no reason for you to be at my door … when what we need to be doing is saying there’s a huge problem half way across the world and we need to do something about it.
On the fear and panic:
Having seen what I had seen and having done what I had done, having been where I had been, at no point would I have put – not just my personal safety – but the safety of my loved ones and my community at risk.
There were hours of debate about “can I touch the subway pole? Can I go bowling? Can you get Ebola from a bowling ball?” There wasn’t a lot of informing, saying, hey, none of this is really pertinent. … What we know about this disease is you cannot get this illness at a time when someone is not symptomatic, as I was. … I could understand the fear because I don’t think people were given a reason to not fear.
Everyone was worried about touching a subway pole but what they don’t realize is that the day before when I got on the train, *I* was worried about touching the subway pole, because what happens if I get the flu or I get a stomach bug and I start having diarrhea or I start having nausea, or a fever -- I go through a whole cascade of events that are really tough and difficult... I understood what would happen if I had to to to the hospital so – I was the person as far away from everyone else as possible. I didn’t touch anything on the subway, I didn’t touch a pole– I put antibacterial gel on my hands repeatedly. Because I was afraid of me getting sick – at no point was I afraid that I was going to get anyone else sick.
On the quarantine policies from governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie:
What I think and what I know is that what happened after my sickness was likely for many politicians a convenient chance to appear presidential. And I’m afraid that what was we forsake public health principles at the expense of political expediency.
I’m very afraid that what we did in this situation is set a precedent that allowed politicians to make public health policies when they were not qualified to do so.
On Kaci Hickox, the nurse who challenged Governor Christie’s quarantine:
She’s very polarizing because what she said a lot of people didn’t like it. What is amazing to me is that despite how polarizing she can be, no one has recognized the fact that she’s an EIS [Epidemic Intelligence Service] expert, she’s a CDC-trained fellow … one of the most well educated people you can get in public health and at the same time, she’s someone who’s committed her life to responding. So whether or not you agree with what she said, really what she stands for is all in line with sound public health principles.