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How to keep safe while operating on Ebola patients

surgical instrumentsAmid the Ebola crisis, two U.S. surgeons with a combined 30 years of working in developing countries have stepped forward to help disseminate well-defined protocols for operating on any patient with the virus or at-risk of having contracting the virus.

In an op-ed piece published today in the San Jose Mercury News, the two surgeons first ask, then answer, their own question: "Why should anyone care about surgery and Ebola? Ebola is a virus." Their answer is that patients still have accidents. They still need things like appendectomies and C-sections and treatment for gunshot wounds.

The piece points to shocking news reports like those of 16-year-old Shacki Kamara, a patient in Sierra Leone who died of gunshot wounds to his leg during the Ebola quarantine of West Point, Liberia because people were afraid to operate on him. The growing fear of operating on anyone suspected of having contracted the Ebola virus, which is transmitted by bodily fluids, is a flashback to the early days of the AIDS crisis when operating room personnel and physicians often declined to treat patients, said Stanford surgeon Sherry Wren, MD, who co-authored the op-ed with Johns Hopkins surgeon Adam L. Kushner, MD, founder and director of Surgeons OverSeas. The two wrote:

With supportive medical care, patients may survive an Ebola infection. Without surgery for severe trauma, obstructed labor, a strangulated hernia, or a perforated ulcer, some patients may die. The moral dilemma is overwhelming. How does one operate on a patient infected with Ebola, yet at the same time protect the surgical staff?

Last week, the two came together to write an Ebola surgery protocol and send it to a number of surgical organizations, and the largest one - the American College of Surgeons - immediately accepted and posted it on their website. The response to the new guidelines was immediate and overwhelming, Wren said. In Africa, 10 countries have since adopted the protocol. Press articles on the guidelines have also appeared around the world, including in the New York Times and Washington Post and on Al Jazeera. Wren told me in a phone interview that she was both a bit surprised and overwhelmed by the reaction:

I’ll tell you, it was amazing. I’ve seen very few things in surgery go that fast. There was a need to start the discussion. It was never my intent to be the definitive Ebola expert. I’ve never seen a case of Ebola in my life. We expanded existing  CDC guidelines for prevention of transmission of other infections such as HIV and hepatitis and then added common sense from years of  experience operating.

Both Wren and Kushner acknowledged the "unsung heroes" who bravely choose to treat Ebola patients and stress the importance of working to keep them as safe as possible by increasing the availability of supplies of protective gear especially in West Africa and working toward increased training for health care workers. As they state in their op-ed:

 The management of Ebola is new to many clinicians in the United States and elsewhere. We hope to see more training, protocols and personal protective supplies to lower risks to surgical staff and patients. Just as surgery is a necessary part of a functioning health system, surgery must be part of the discussion during this time of Ebola; otherwise, the death toll will not only include those unfortunate to have died from the virus but also those unlucky to have developed a treatable surgical condition in this time of Ebola.

Previously: Experience from the trenches in the first Ebola outbreak, Ebola: A look at what happened and what can be done, Paul Farmer: We should be saving Ebola patients, Ebola panel says 1.3 million cases possible, building trust key to containment and Should we worry? Stanford's global health chief weighs in on Ebola
Photo by Badly Drawn Dad

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