New York doctor released from hospital, urges end to Ebola stigma

Dr. Craig Spencer, who was the first Ebola patient in New York City, smiles during a news conference at New York's Bellevue Hospital, Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014.
Dr. Craig Spencer, who was the first Ebola patient in New York City, smiles during a news conference at New York's Bellevue Hospital, Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014. AP

Craig Spencer, the New York doctor who contracted Ebola in West Africa, said Tuesday that his recovery from the deadly virus speaks to the effectiveness of protocols for health care workers returning from West Africa.

“I am a living example of how those protocols work and how early detection helps,” Spencer said at a press conference to celebrate his release from Bellevue.

Spencer, who is now Ebola-free, asked Americans to focus their attention on the heart of the outbreak in West Africa, “where families are being torn apart.”

The urgency of that crisis drove Spencer to volunteer to treat Ebola patients in Guinea for five weeks with the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders, he said.

“During this time I cried as I held children who were not strong enough to survive the virus,” Spencer said.

But he also rejoiced when his patients recovered. And many of those former patients and their families called to check on Spencer when he fell ill himself, he said.

“Please join me in turning out attention back to west Africa and ensuring that medical providers and other aid workers do not face stigma,” Spencer said. Volunteers need to be encouraged to fight this epidemic at its source, he said.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio embraced Spencer, hailing him as “a true American hero” the nurses and doctors who treated Spencer applauded.

“It is a good feeling to hug a hero, and we have a hero in our midst,” the mayor said.

Spencer became infected while volunteering with Doctors Without Borders in Guinea. He developed a fever after returning to New York City and was rushed by ambulance to Bellevue, where he was placed in isolation. Two of his friends and his fiancé also were quarantined.

News of Spencer’s illness caused anxiety among New Yorkers who feared that the doctor might have spread the deadly virus before his hospitalization. In the days before he developed a fever, Spencer had traveled on the subway and in an Uber taxi. He ate at restaurants and cafes, ran in Manhattan’s High Line park and visited a bowling alley.

Spencer’s two friends have been released from quarantine but their temperatures are being taken twice a day by health department staff. His fiancé will remain in quarantine until Nov. 14.

Two hundred and eighty nine people are being actively monitored for Ebola by the health department in New York City. Most of them arrived recently from one of the West African countries affected by the virus.

About 100 people who were involved in Spencer’s care at Bellevue will continue to be monitored for 21 days after their last contact with him, said Mary Travis Bassett, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Bassett, like de Blasio, made a point of hugging Spencer and thanking him for his service in West Africa.

“His work in West Africa was not only for the people of Guinea it was for all of us,” she said. “We will not vanquish this epidemic until we vanquish it in West Africa.”

New Yorkers must continue to be vigilant, Bassett said, but they should remember that stigma and discrimination also can be damaging to public health.