Tacoma nurse says ‘sense of duty’ compelled him to visit Ebola zone

Matthew Rollosson of Tacoma was treating Ebola patients in West Africa last month when he found out he was a Time Magazine Person of the Year for 2014.

Time recognized the collective group of international health care workers on the front lines of the deadly Ebola epidemic — and that includes Rollosson, a Tacoma nurse. He’s a global-health expert who recently spent five weeks in Sierra Leone with the Boston-based aid agency Partners in Health.

“We felt proud about that,” he said about receiving the magazine’s annual honor. “I have been writing on social media about my work in Sierra Leone, and people have called me a hero, but I don’t consider myself that. It was a job that needed to be done, and it’s one that I had the appropriate training and skills to do.

“It was a sense of duty rather than anything heroic,” said Rollosson, 52.

The decision to volunteer was driven by sheer need, he said. As hard as it was to leave his job at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department — not to mention his wife, Holly, and 2-year-old son, Andrew — Rollosson said he felt compelled to help fight the raging virus.

More than 20,000 Ebola cases — including 7,800 deaths —have been reported in West Africa since March, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“With this epidemic, there’s a realization that this is an unprecedented event in modern history,” Rollosson said.

He visited Sierra Leone from Nov. 9 to Dec. 16, treating the sick and dying in the northern district of Port Loko, the area with the highest rate of transmission. In interviews, he takes a fairly clinical view of what he witnessed.

“With my background in trauma, I didn’t see anything that I didn’t expect,” said Rollosson, a 1981 graduate of Decatur High School in Federal Way who went on to study public health and tropical medicine. “As far as personal impact, this was my fifth trip to Africa, so it was nothing that came as a surprise and shock. Walking into a resource-poor setting, you have to anticipate there will be a shortage of supplies that you need.”

Forming relationships with patients was hard because of the 100-degree heat, high humidity and full-body protective suits worn by the volunteers. (“The patient can really only see the eyes of the person inside.”) But he said it was rewarding to watch Ebola patients get discharged and walk out of the emergency unit.

“There were a couple of kids that I got attached to, and both ended up being survivors. We worked real hard with one girl, and over the course of a couple weeks, she improved.”

After he returned to Tacoma, Rollosson was thrilled when a colleague sent a picture of the girl right before she was sent home.

Rolloson has worked at the health department for four years. Department spokeswoman Edie Jeffers called him a nurse with “a sense of personal mission.”

“We are grateful that he represents public health like this on the front lines,” she said.

As a public health nurse epidemiologist, Rollosson’s regular job is investigating diseases and trends. That includes monitoring people for symptoms of common diseases, such as flu, and more rare ones, such as Ebola.

For a 21-day period that ends Wednesday, he is being observed by his Health Department colleagues — standard federal protocol for anyone who has traveled to West Africa during the Ebola epidemic.

“He is definitely on the receiving end of what he normally does,” Jeffers said.

A total of four individuals are under some level of monitoring in Pierce County, she said. That doesn’t include Air Force and other military personnel who have deployed on recent missions to West Africa and are subject to monitoring or quarantine at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Rollosson volunteered in the same Ebola clinic as Seattle trauma nurse Karin Huster, a 47-year-old mother of two.

By the time she left, Huster figured the center that opened Nov. 1 had seen more than 500 suspected and confirmed Ebola patients, including nearly 100 who had survived the world’s worst outbreak of the deadly disease.

“You realize that this is exactly where you should be,” said the former Harborview Medical Center intensive-care trauma nurse. “It really feels like you’re doing the right thing.”

There’s no firm count of the number of health workers in the Northwest or even the nation who’ve volunteered to go to West Africa to fight Ebola.

Anecdotally, there are reports of several — fewer than a dozen — nurses, doctors and other health workers from the Puget Sound area who took time from their families and jobs to brave a virus that kills 65 percent to 70 percent of its victims.

Fear wasn’t a factor, Huster and Rollosson said, because the spread of the virus can be prevented with basic infection-control methods.

Both are experienced international travelers, with Huster previously working in Liberia, Syria and Lebanon, and Rollosson a veteran of stints in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and Iran.

But shortages of basic equipment such as chlorine bleach and long gloves made the task in Sierra Leone more dangerous. And there was no avoiding the utter misery that Ebola brings.

“It’s an ugly disease,” Rollosson said. “Most people don’t bleed, but there’s profuse diarrhea and vomiting and pain.”

It wasn’t until she was heading back to the U.S. that the weight of such trauma caught up with her, Huster said.

“Everything just came in rushing,” she recalled, describing a torrent of emotions and images. “I called a friend in Seattle and said, ‘I’m not doing so well.’ ”

Even so, Huster said she plans to return to West Africa, perhaps by the end of January.

Rollosson will volunteer overseas again, too. He said he signed on for Ebola duty in part out of concern for his own family.

First, the longer the epidemic rages in West Africa, the higher the chance it will spread to other parts of the world, including the U.S.

Second, and more important, is the message it sends to the world:

“I also wanted to set an example for my son, that doing this kind of work, doing work for other people, is something we should do,” he said.

“This is something we will talk about when he’s older.”