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Seattle Nurse Returns For Respite From ‘Complete Mayhem’ Of Ebola Outbreak

Most days, Seattle nurse Karin Huster woke up around 6 a.m. for a quick bucket shower and breakfast before walking over to the Ebola treatment unit in Port Loko, Sierra Leone.

Outside, ambulances would queue up at all times of the day, packed with as many as eight patients at all stages of illness.

“You will have patients when you open the door who will be dead. You'll have patients who are taking their last breath, or seizing right in front of you,” Huster said, speaking with Jeannie Yandel on KUOW’s The Record.

It wasn’t unusual for the unit to admit 30 to 40 people in a day.

“It’s complete mayhem sometimes,” Huster said.

Huster has just returned from Ebola-ravaged West Africa. The former trauma care unit nurse from Harborview Medical Center was in Liberia last year helping to train care workers.

She is experienced in witnessing trauma and tragedy, but nothing like the outbreak in Sierra Leone. “You're not prepared to experience the magnitude of loss and the constant rate of losses all the time,” Huster said. “It starts early in the morning when they tell you how many people died and then it continues during the day.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "In a field of pre-dug graves, health workers completely suit up to bury the bodies of Ebola victims. Identification is not always possible.", "fid": "114550", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201501/Ebola-tryp2-Huster.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Karin Huster"}]]On the day Huster was scheduled to leave Sierra Leone, she let down her guard.

“I was sitting at my hotel in Freetown ready to take the shuttle to the airport, and then all of a sudden things just started rushing in: just emotion, nothing in particular, not a particular story, just I think my brain allowing itself to say, ‘OK, I’m done and these are the emotions that I have experienced that I have to sort of blocked [out],” she said.

To cope, Huster said it was necessary to adopt a “business attitude” to get through the day. But health workers also adopt different techniques to relieve stress.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Karin Huster, second from left, goes by \"Frenchie\" at work. The health workers draw on their aprons to make them more human to their patients.", "fid": "114523", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201501/Eboladocs-Huster.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Karin Huster"}]]

Every day, the nurses and doctors decorate their personal protective outfit with drawings and nicknames.

“We try to do that every time and have a different one so that people would be able to see that we're sort of human beings coming in – we’re not just these space suit, medical people coming in and giving them medications,” Huster said.

Her apron had the name “Frenchie” – a nickname she picked up at Harborview.

But one of the best sources of joy was the survivor celebration, when the unit’s staff would gather to clap and sing a song. The patients would tie a bit of cloth to the branches of a survivor tree.

Huster is back in Seattle. She plans on returning to Sierra Leone in March.

“It's just the right thing to do. I'm a clinician and that's what we need to overcome Ebola in West Africa,” she said. “We owe it to our patients, I owe it to all the people there who are victims of the disease, and to all the staff that's working day in and day out there without breaks.”

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.