“Coming from Sierra Leone, huh?” the desk worker asked. “Say, do they still have that Ebola?”
I blinked. “One confirmed new case, yeah.”
He nodded. “Go ahead on through, ma’am!”
I knew from CDC instructions that I was to take my own temperature twice per day for the full 21-day Ebola incubation period—and I did. But on day 20 of self-surveillance, once I was settled back home in Washington, D.C., I woke up with those same symptoms, plus a sore throat. You idiot, I thought, realizing that in the flurry of unpacking, transcribing interviews, and getting back to the office, I’d forgotten to take my last two penicillin tablets. The tonsillitis was probably reemerging.
In keeping with formality, I made my obligatory call to the CDC to report the symptoms, dreading the frenzy, but was instead confronted by the phone line’s new recording: “Press 1 for information on Zika virus.” In fact, in light of Zika’s recent hold on dozens of South and Central American countries, no one seemed to remember what Ebola was. I was twice mistakenly transferred to Zika specialists, assumed to be reporting Zika symptoms, and once properly directed, received some bizarre questions from phone agents, like, “I understand you’ve been in West Africa and you’re reporting Ebola symptoms. But only the symptoms, though, right?” as if I had probably run a negative lab test in my own apartment.
The scene in the Emergency Room—where I was required to visit after the call—mirrored the scene I’d avoided in the Sierra Leone clinic. The receptionist asked where I’d been, took three steps back from the table and removed the pens from the clipboard, asking me to please use my own. A nurse asked me to recount approximate hours spent in survivors’ homes, clinics, and treatment hospitals; it had been many. Each answer provoked a blink of silence.
“Are you freaking out right now?”
I tell her no, that I really just have tonsillitis.
More silence. “I wish you the best, baby girl.”
I was immediately masked, isolated, and ordered to give blood and urine tests, throat, and sinus cultures. By mid-afternoon, the drama wiggled its way into my psyche. Asked about weakness and irritability, my mind battled itself: You’re dying! No, no, you’re just hungry.
Still, there were constant reminders that we weren’t in Freetown, that none of my providers had lost a husband, child, or sibling to Ebola. There were no chlorine buckets, no protective gear, no sinister silence in the Emergency Room as we awaited test results. The nurses who strung the sinus culture wire through my nose joked about Ebola when I winced.
“Come on, honey, you’ve been sick in Africa before, you’re fine.”
“She ain’t fine. Child, I can’t believe your mama didn’t kill you, going over there during Ebola.” She shook her head. “I don’t even let my daughter go up to New York for New Year’s Eve.”