Fighting Ebola in Africa

Fighting Ebola in Africa

Although most of us are familiar with Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, some would be surprised to learn that there are actually seven uniformed services that are part of the federal government. Dr. Chris Poulson spoke on April 4, 2016, at UD about one of these—the U.S. Public Health Service—and his deployment experience during the Ebola outbreak of 2014.

The U.S. Public Health Service was established in 1798 to screen immigrants coming into the United States for possible contagion. “Now our 7,000 commissioned officers respond to emergencies all over the world,” Poulson said. “Some of our deployments have included natural disasters, school shootings, and, of course, 9/11.” As a psychologist, Poulson has been with the Public Health Service since 2012. “My permanent duty station is at a federal prison,” he said. “But I am on call for deployment one month out of every five.”

In October 2014, Poulson received his first deployment—to Liberia in West Africa to combat the largest Ebola outbreak in history. “There is no running water, no sewers, no electricity, and hardly any means of communicating with people” he said. “So when disease hits, it’s devastating.” Ebola ravaged Liberia’s healthcare workers, many of whom contracted the Ebola virus and died. So the U.S. Public Health Service was deployed to set up a hospital to treat healthcare workers. This would hopefully make other countries feel confident enough to send their own healthcare workers to assist in the fight against Ebola.

As a psychologist, Poulson’s assignment within the medical unit was to take care of the caretakers. “I was constantly checking in with the doctors and nurses, asking things like—Are you ok? How are you sleeping? How’s your stress level? What’s your stress plan?” he said. His goal was to be imbedded with the medical team and not to be stuck in an office away from the action. In order to do that, he assisted with donning and doffing—the putting- on and taking-off of the protective suits worn by medical personnel when treating contagious patients. This was the perfect time to connect with his team. “Assessing someone’s mental status in a clinical setting is a little more formal,” he said. “But in this situation, an informal approach worked better.”
Poulson’s four-week deployment was extended another three weeks because of a forced quarantine in Washington, D.C., which included twice-daily temperature checks over a three week period to ensure that he had not contracted Ebola while in Liberia. “The main thing that I was left with from my deployment…the one thing that sticks out to me is to be grateful for what we have and where we live,” he said.

Poulson then described for the group his career path and how he chose to enlist in the Public Health Service. “After graduation, I started work at a managed care company and then worked for a pain management clinic,” he said. “And then I decided to go into private practice.” But private practice has its own set of challenges. “I was working long hours, fighting with insurance companies, and only 85% of my patients would show up,” he said. A friend recommended he consider working for the Bureau of Prisons because of the steady hours, good pay, and good benefits. “Although I wasn’t so sure about working with that type of clientele, I thought I would give it a try,” he said.
After working at a prison for some time, he learned about the U.S. Public Health Service from a coworker. “I kept seeing these guys in blue uniforms, and I found out that they work for the Surgeon General, they serve underserved populations, and they have great opportunities for advancement and promotion,” he said.

And the decision to enlist was a good one. “Working for the prison was better than working in private practice,” he said. “And being a commissioned officer in the Public Health Service is even better than that.” For more information on events sponsored by the University of Dallas Office of Personal Career Development, visit our website.

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