Friends of Kaci Hickox, the Fort Kent nurse at the center of a national debate about quarantining those who have treated Ebola patients, say she is challenging state requirements so other health workers returning from West Africa won’t have to.

“She’s fighting this cause for others,” said Neer Patel, a longtime friend who said Hickox has a passion for exploring other countries and a strong commitment to humanitarian work.

Infectious disease experts, including scientists writing for the New England Journal of Medicine, say there’s no scientific basis for a mandatory quarantine for someone like Hickox, who has tested negative for Ebola and is not showing any symptoms. Nevertheless, top Maine health officials say they will seek a court order to compel Hickox to abide by a 21-day in-home quarantine, out of “an abundance of caution.”

Ebola is not contagious in those who do not display symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends monitoring health care workers who have treated Ebola patients. Ebola can only be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids.

Hickox said on national television Wednesday morning that she’s “appalled” at the quarantine and will not be “bullied” by politicians. She has said she will fight the state’s court order.

Hickox’s friends say it’s not surprising that she is taking a principled stand, even under difficult circumstances.

“She’s a strong, compassionate person,” said Patel, 32, a Fort Worth software developer and Hickox’s former classmate at the University of Texas at Arlington. “She’s really concerned about her colleagues coming back to the U.S. after her. These are heroes, not criminals, and they shouldn’t be treated as such.”

Patel said Hickox is a warm person and a “true friend in every respect.”

Hickox, a Texas native who for several weeks helped treat Ebola victims in Sierra Leone, was isolated in a tent against her will when she returned Friday to the United States through the Newark Liberty International Airport. Hickox lambasted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has instituted blanket quarantine policies for such workers.

Patel said he tried to lift Hickox’s spirits while she was held for three days at a New Jersey hospital by mailing a Texas flag for Hickox to hang in the isolation tent. The flag arrived just as Hickox was being released.

“She was joking around and saying that the only thing missing from this tent was a Texas flag, so I got on Amazon and sent one to her,” Patel said.

Hickox grew up about an hour from Fort Worth and attended Rio Vista High School, according to The New York Times.

After she graduated from college in 2002, Hickox worked for Doctors Without Borders, traveling to Myanmar, Uganda, Nigeria and Sudan to help with programs meant to improve access to good health care. She also later worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Las Vegas. Hickox earned her master’s degree in nursing from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“She’s always giving of herself to help others,” said Roger Ornelas, 37, an assistant principal from Arlington, Texas, and Hickox’s friend. “She is always going where she believes she can do the most good for the most amount of people.”

Hickox wrote about her experiences caring for patients in Myanmar and Nigeria on the Doctors Without Borders website.

In Myanmar, she wrote in 2009, a typical day started with waking in a bamboo shelter to the sound of geckos, followed by a breakfast of sticky rice and shaved coconut. Then she went off to work in surrounding villages with her team members, traveling by tractor.

“We would treat more than 1,200 severely and moderately malnourished children every week,” she wrote. “Because of this great need, we refused to allow anything to interfere with our activities. When a bridge broke down … my team and I walked four miles in the mud, wind and rain to reach the nutrition site. It was exhausting, but the smile of a malnourished child who had gained weight and seemed to come alive again made the damp and dirt well worthwhile.”

When Patel found out this summer that Hickox was going to spend several weeks helping Ebola patients in West Africa, he joked with her that “he won the pool” about where in the world she would travel to next. He believes that before Hickox traveled to Sierra Leone, she lived in Fort Kent for a few months. She arrived there Tuesday night.

Ornelas, the assistant principal, said Hickox is almost always upbeat, but the ordeal she has faced in the past few days has been upsetting for her.

“In 15 years I had never heard her shed a tear, but she was crying,” he said, recalling a phone conversation he had Saturday with Hickox. “The emotional toll on her was tremendous.”

Both Patel and Ornelas said they don’t know how long Hickox will be in Maine, but they expect she will continue her humanitarian-based travels.

“She likes experiencing different cultures and learning about other parts of the world,” Patel said. “She always sees the big picture, and she will go and help others.”

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.