HOUSTON, TX – Don’t you just love those annual lists that summarize our lives: the best and worst quotes, movies, songs, gadgets, dresses, hookups, breakups, selfies. A catalogue of cultural history with a dash of schadenfreude for good measure. Everyone is kind of plain-looking without a stylist. Everyone has love handles (some more than others) without spanx! Successful, well-paid actresses wear outfits we, the proletariat, wouldn’t be caught dead in – if we could afford them.
I must confess that I do look forward to People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive issue. I apologize for any semblance of sexism, but, to be fair, I also enjoy their Most Beautiful Woman in the World selection. I do not live vicariously through these images. Rather, the superlatives are overwhelming, provoking within me a cynical skepticism as to their choices. Where was Paul Newman over the 28-year history of sexy men covers? Where is Jim Caviezel?
Perhaps these lists are useful as comic relief when contrasted to The Year in Pictures inventory of man’s ever-increasing inhumanity to man: war, grisly death, school shootings, even daily incivilities between those who should know better. This catalogue of human history would be unrelieved if not for yet another list: the one we make for ourselves, that personal accounting of people who have touched our lives and, for the most part, made them better: parents, children, friends, educators, students, colleagues, caregivers, police officers, firefighters, letter carriers, sanitation workers, the Good Samaritan down the street, the kind, anonymous stranger.
On a more global level, since 1927,Time Magazine has highlighted a Man of the Year, later a Person of the Year (since 1999), “that features and profiles a person, group, idea or object that ‘for better or for worse…has done the most to influence the events of the year’” (TIME Books, 2002). The list includes presidents and popes, soldiers and statesmen, titans of industry and whistleblowers. The first woman pictured, in 1936, is Wallis Simpson, whose claim to fame is that King Edward VI loved her enough to abdicate his throne for her. Romantic, but perhaps Amelia Earhart would have been more inspiring. Many of us have made the list as well: in 1966, The Inheritor, “[r}epresenting a generation of American men and women, aged 25 and under; “ in 1975, American women; in 2003, the American soldier; in 2011, The Protestor.
But the selections also include Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Remember, the publishers’ criteria include “for better or for worse.” Frankly, I expected Vladimir Putin or ISIS to be on this year’s cover.
Instead, “For tireless acts of courage and mercy, for buying the world time to boost its defenses, for risking, for persisting, for sacrificing and saving, the Ebola fighters are TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year” (Time, Dec. 22, 2014). In this choice, the editors transformed an international nightmare into an informative, inspiring portrait of selfless dedication and commitment to not only eradicating disease but eliminating the cultural, social, economic and political conditions that serve as a petri dish of sorts for pandemics.
Among those profiled (and they include the Liberian Red Cross Dead-Body Management Team) is Dr. Thomas Geisbert, a virologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston. Since the 1990s, Dr. Geisbert has conducted studies on guinea pigs, mice, and monkeys to find a treatment for Ebola. Working with the biotech company Tekmira, Geisbert developed TKM-Ebola that, along with ZMAPP, successfully treats the virus. “It’s a great feeling knowing I helped to develop something that hopefully saved somebody. And if it saved one person, it matters” (Time).
The Galveston National Laboratory, which studies deadly pathogens, opened on the UTMB campus 10 years ago. In order to conduct this kind of research, the lab had to create provisions against infections among researchers. Clearly, health-care providers cannot wear cumbersome hazmat suits that researchers wear. In the remote case of infection, a limited number of doctors and nurses wearing impermeable suits with tight-fitting gloves and masks would provide care in secure, isolated spaces. Besides space for these “occupational” cases, UTMB also has five other rooms designed for clinical cases where the risk of contagion is high. “The campus is the home of the National Biocontainment Training Center. People across the nation come to the island to learn the protocols and procedures. This is the place that trains the trainers. . . if the folks at the medical branch had to provide care, they could. And those of us who are their neighbors could be confident that the disease would be contained” (http://www.utmb.edu/newsroom/article9738.aspx). (According the Dec. 4 Houston Chronicle, UTMB Galveston has been designated a federal Ebola facility.)
Meanwhile, in Houston, Texas Children’s Hospital has been named as a pediatric Ebola Center, the only such facility in the country. The designation followed a visit by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a study by the Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response after the death of Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas in September, and the subsequent infection of his two nurses, Amber Vinson and Nina Pham. The eight-bed unit at TCH, which should be operating within nine months, will serve children from the entire country with Ebola, pandemic influenza, enterovirus D68 and other infectious diseases. The isolation unit will have all the latest technology associated with advances in biocontainment: efficient air filtering, negative air pressure, separate ventilation and special security. An onsite biosafety level 3 lab will allow for quick identification of pathogens. “We’re going to overprepare and provide care in an utterly safe way,” Dr. Mark W. Kline, physician-in-chief at the hospital and chair of the pediatrics department at Baylor College of Medicine, said of the Texas Children’s facility (http://www.chron.com/local/prognosis/article/Texas-Children-s-will-build-a-new-isolation-unit-5935130.php).
Last summer, the world watched as Dr. Kent Brantley, another Texan, arrived at Emory University for treatment for Ebola, which he contracted doing missionary work in Liberia. Finally, Americans sat up and took notice. We monitored his progress and, later, his colleague Nancy Writebol, and rejoiced when they were cured. Currently, Dr. Brantley is not practicing medicine; rather he serves as “a voice for the people of West Africa who have no voice here,” reminding his audiences that Ebola has claimed over 7,600 lives thus far and, without a proactive response from the West, the numbers will increase (http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2015/01/03/american_survivors_of_ebola_recount_their_experiences.html). “I think whenever we go through a devastating experience. . .it is an incredible opportunity for the redemption of something. We can say, How can I be better now because of what I have been through” (Time).
When we think of heroes, too often sports stars come to mind. Yes, they are gifted athletes, but making a three-point shot is hardly heroic. It is a skill. Often it is luck. The Ebola fighters, on the other hand, have demonstrated incredible commitment to battling a threat that goes well beyond their job descriptions. In the killing heat of West Africa, in the laboratories around the world, in the corridors of WHO and the CDC, their work is a calling.