American Ebola patient first to be treated in Nebraska center built for SARS outbreak

The third American infected with the Ebola virus arrived at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha early Friday. Rick Sacra, a doctor from Massachusetts who was infected while working at a hospital in Liberia, was said to be communicating with hospital staff upon arrival.

The 51-year-old was working for SIM USA in the obstetrics unit at the ELWA hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. Sacra was not working in the Ebola ward, which is separate from the main hospital. After noticing symptoms of the virus, Sacra was placed in isolation before being flown to the U.S. for treatment.

The hospital, chosen by the Department of State and Nebraska State Health Department, is the largest of the four centers of its kind in the country. The biocontainment unit holds 10 beds and was first built in 2005 to address concerns of a SARS outbreak. Although it’s never been activated the 30 staff members have been prepping and performing regular drills in order to be ready for patients like Sacra.

Sacra was able to board the plane in Liberia, “under his own power,” but was transported from the plane to EMS, and from EMS into the hospital by a gurney. A police escort accompanied the ambulance from Offutt Air Force Base to the hospital located in downtown Omaha.

“I can say he arrived safely, that we’re doing our basic checks on him, getting our baseline laboratories on him, making sure his fluid status is equilibrated, making sure his electrolytes are in control,” said Dr. Mark Rupp, infectious diseases specialist and director of the Nebraska Medical Center Department of Infection Control and Epidemiology.

“We know that he’s seriously ill with a virus that has a very high mortality rate associated with it… We’re looking into alternatives for some of our experimental therapies,” Rupp said, declining to comment further on his condition.

Rupp said the hospital is prepared to care for Sacra “for the long haul” during what might be a 2-3 week process— if Sacra progresses like the two patients that were treated at Emory University Hospital.

“It is not only our mission to care for this patient but to learn from this patient,” Rupp said.

SIM USA president Bruce Johnson, along with the organization’s Liberia County director, traveled to Omaha for Sacra’s arrival.

“Honestly it took the wind out of me. Even this morning when I saw Rick being transported I was crying, but in gratitude. That he was able to come home. We’re trusting in God for a good outcome,” Johnson said.

Johnson said SIM and their insurance will pay for the transport and care of Sacra.

Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center and retired assistant surgeon general for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said they will be sharing what they learn from Sacra’s case with the global community. The Nebraska Medical Center has been in contact with Emory University Hospital and other organizations. Khan said that Emory has been sharing many of their protective gear best practices and that they are working closely together.

“The Ebola patient really makes the point that Ebola and other global infections is a global issue, not just a local issue,” said Khan. “The longer the current outbreak goes on, it’s really inevitable that we will see additional spread worldwide.”

According to Rupp, all of the biocontainment units across the country should be ready for more patients and they should learn from each other as the disease spreads.

Unlike the two other Americans who received treatment at Emory University Hospital, Sacra will not be given the experimental serum ZMapp because the supply has run out. It is unclear if ZMapp was what cured the other two Americans, Emory doctors said.

The doctors said they will try other treatments on Sacra, including one possible treatment which uses antibodies from survivors of the virus.

Debbie Sacra, wife of Rick Sacra spoke at a press conference yesterday in Worcester, Mass., and said the infected doctor was in good spirits before his flight to the U.S. She said their faith is in God now and she is supposed to arrive in Omaha tomorrow to be with her husband. There is a press conference scheduled to give updates on Sacra’s status on Saturday.

The Ebola virus outbreak is the worst outbreak of the virus in history. It has killed nearly 2,000 people and infected many more, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). There are no known cures for the virus, which has an extremely high mortality rate.