Photo courtesy of Giu Vincente

Outbreak Chronicles: Following Protocol

Interview with Brianne Phillips

Ms. Phillips works as a nurse at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. During the outbreak, she was working 80 hour weeks treating patients in the isolation ward. Normally she works in the NICU [Neo-natal intensive care unit.]

All interviews are video recorded and transcribed for accuracy.

Outbreak Chronicles Interviewer: Hello Ms. Phillips. We were connected with you via your partner Ms. Marn.

Brianne Phillips: Yes, she told me about the interview you had with her and Tash a few weeks ago. May I ask why you’re both working on this project? It seems quite involved.

OCI: Oh, ah. Well, it’s… [Laughs.] Nobody ever really asks, actually. I guess I’m not used to talking about it with anyone except my partner Mark.

BR: I’m curious by nature. It’s part of the reason I became a nurse.

OCI: Right, well, we became interested in creating a living document of peoples real experiences during these outbreaks.

BR: So you haven’t just been working on the Los Angeles one?

OCI: No, not… exclusively. There’s actually been multiple outbreaks —

BR: Have they all been rabies-related?

OCI: No, some have, but some others haven’t. There was a huge measles outbreak in New York, though, and a pretty large report of mumps in Maryland. Whooping cough has come back, too. This rabies outbreak in Los Angeles was the largest, but they had smaller ones in Buttonwillow and another small town up north of here… I’d have to check my notes, sorry.

BR: It’s alright. I was wondering if all this anti-vaccination media stuff would catch up, but I haven’t been able to look into it much. I’ve been very busy with work. I used all my vacation days after the outbreak. I wanted to spend some time with Cindy.

They’d been through it at the club, and I don’t know. I thought maybe I could put a lot of it behind me.

OCI: This isn’t related to the outbreak, but I was curious how you two met.

BR: Cindy and me? [Smiles.] Oh, at Trader Joe’s. I know a lot of people say that when they’ve really just met like, online dating, but it was the Trader Joe’s on Wilshire.

I mean, she’s just… gorgeous. She was shopping and just had this cute embroidered tank top. It turns out it was handmade. BY HER. She’s just so talented, I love her to death.

Sorry, yeah, I’m very passionate about my girlfriend. [Laughs.] So, uh, Trader Joe’s. I look like a frumpster right now because I got off work just a bit ago, but I clean up real good when I’m gonna hit the Trader Joe’s. I’m a pretty smooth lesbian like that. [Laughs.] I saddled right up to her at the papayas and complimented her top. It was love at first sight. Well, not love maybe, but pretty close.

OCI: That’s wonderful.

BR: Thanks, yeah. Sorry, it’s hard not to gush about her. Cindy was such a rock for me during the outbreak. I was working in the isolation ward, where a lot of the infected, or suspected infected, were being placed for treatment.

OCI: It’s my understanding that rabies is more or less a death sentence. Is that not correct?

BR: Well, yes, mostly. Once symptoms set in, you’re basically fucked. Ooh, sorry. Screwed. You are… not doing well, regardless. But there have been some advancements, oddly enough, considering before this, basically nobody ever got rabies in this country.

OCI: What kind of advancements?

BR: It’s called the Milwaukee protocol. It’s pretty experimental, and includes putting people in chemically-induced coma and administering some intense antivirals. Not a lot of people survive, even still. It’s something like 8–10 percent.

OCI: How many people underwent the treatment at Cedars?

BR: About 30.

OCI: Is that a lot?

BR: Sort of. I mean, there were hundreds of people infected and coming to our hospital, but a lot of people didn’t appear as good candidates, and others wouldn’t survive the coma itself. Plus we didn’t have that many isolated areas to place them and administer the treatment.

Only 5 of those 30 survived. A lot were just… too far gone. But that’s still better than the ten percent survival rate. We were doing something right.

But it was extremely depressing, so I would try and pick up extra hours in the NICU, because babies are just happy. They’re so googly with their little derp faces. Adorable. Even the ones that have like, their organs born on the outside were looking better than a lot of the infected people coming in.

OCI: Did you have a lot of people to look after?

BR: Yes, oh yes. Rounds were exhausting. At peak, they were hours long. Not because the patients were complicated, but it was just so many people.

OCI: What were some of the precautions staff took to protect themselves from the infected?

BR: I wore a suit, made of… I don’t remember what it’s called. Not Kevlar, that’s for the police. They weren’t quite the Hazmat suits they were using in the quarantine camps either, but it was close. Thick material, kind of a plastic finish to it. We would wear that and some thick leather gloves. Eventually we started wearing masks too, because people would cough or spit blood.

A lot of the patients were strapped down or restrained in some way. But they could bite. Many tried.

But human’s are interesting. I had a minor in psychology in undergrad… Humans have a capacity greater than any other creature to adapt to almost anything. You’d be surprised how quickly the staff became accustomed to the new protocols, the new ways of doing things.

It becomes automatic. You don’t move too quickly as it agitates the patients. You don’t wave your arms near them, because it’ll make them want to bite or snap at you. You always wear protective gear, even if they’re restrained, even if they can’t move one inch in either direction, you wear protective gear.

The people who don’t listen get bit and that is natural selection.

OCI: Is it?

BR: Yes, because they’re stupid. Their stupidity is naturally willed out of the common gene pool.

OCI: Was there… a lot of naturally… willed out staff at Cedars?

BR: Nah, just two. But things ran really well after they got bit and died.

OCI: They died?

BR: Oh yeah. Pretty quickly, too. One of them got his finger bit off. That’s a lot of virus to get in the wound. I mean, it takes a lot of strength to just bite someone’s digit off. The other one was just mauled in the face. He leaned over too close, the woman just went for him… he died of blood loss, though, not rabies.

Like I said, natural selection.

* * *

Outbreak Chronicles is a daily series interviewing survivors from the 2017 rabies epidemic in Los Angeles County. A new report will be posted each day in November in the Outbreak Chronicles publication on Medium.

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