(Bloomberg) — Nina Pham, the nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas who cared for the first patient in the U.S. diagnosed with Ebola, began volunteering at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Fort Worth as a child.
Now the 26-year-old nurse has become the first person to contract the disease in the U.S. after caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died from the virus on Oct. 8.
“She is a hero,” said Tom Ha, a Haltom City, Texas, insurance agent who attends Our Lady of Fatima with Diana Pham, Nina’s mother. “She knew the patient had Ebola but she treated him like any other patient.”
Pham’s career in nursing and her commitment to assisting in patient care came as no surprise to members of the church, who saw her volunteering in the community from a young age. Pham didn’t hesitate to take up a role in the hospital staff treating Duncan, said Kim Tran, also a friend of Pham’s mother.
“She was not scared at all to be on the unit called to take care of Mr. Duncan,” Tran said. “She has always wanted to be a nurse and to take care of people.”
Pham, who became a registered nurse in 2010, according to state records, cared for Duncan multiple times during his stay at the hospital, health officials have said. She was wearing full protective gear and following the protocol for treating infected people, said Dan Varga, chief clinical officer at Texas Health, at a press conference.
“I’m doing well and want to thank everyone for their kind wishes and prayers,” Pham said in a statement released by the hospital today. “I am blessed by the support of family and friends and am blessed to be cared for by the best team of doctors and nurses in the world here.”
Pham’s infection means the U.S. has to “rethink” care procedures, said Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a press conference yesterday. Candace White, spokeswoman for the hospital, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Pham, who graduated in 2010 from Texas Christian University with a nursing degree, lived in a Dallas apartment building that city officials sealed off and cleaned starting Oct. 11. The family is “in shock right now” and staying in seclusion, said Ha.
Stephanie Wright, 27, who met Pham through their sorority at Texas Christian, is helping to organize a prayer vigil for Pham tonight. Pham’s choice of the nursing program showed her dedication, she said in a phone interview.
“She was always smiling. She was always positive,” Wright said. “She’s very private. This must be overwhelming.” Wright is also helping to raise money to help defray any medical costs not covered by her employer and extra costs, such as her dog’s quarantine by the city.
Pham wasn’t among 48 people being monitored after potentially being in contact with Duncan before he was put in hospital isolation, according to Frieden. Under safety procedures in place, Duncan’s caregivers were responsible for monitoring their own health during and after his treatment. Pham only had close contact with one person while she was contagious, Frieden said.
That person, whose name hasn’t been released, also has been admitted to Texas Health Presbyterian, according to a statement from Elizabeth Murphy, spokeswoman for Alcon Inc., an eye care company that is part of Novartis AG. The person works for the company, Murphy said.
The Alcon employee was admitted to the hospital Oct. 12 and “is being monitored for potential signs and symptoms of the Ebola virus” after being in contact with Pham, according to the statement. The worker has shown no signs or symptoms of infection, Murphy said.
Pham may have gotten a boost from a transfusion that was given by a former Ebola patient who survived the infection and is now healthy, said Jim Khoi, a priest at the church. The transfusion offer was unsolicited, said Khoi, who received word of the transfusion from Pham’s mother.
Kent Brantly, the American missionary who recovered after being infected with Ebola, flew to Texas on Oct. 12 to donate plasma to Pham, said Todd Shearer, spokesman for Brantly’s organization, Samaritan’s Purse.
Plasma is one of the therapies that has been used to treat patients in the Ebola outbreak. Blood is collected from survivors and plasma is separated out, then transferred to another patient. In theory, this would give the patient natural antibodies against the disease.
Antibodies are produced by white blood cells in response to foreign invaders in the body. They bind to viruses, either neutralizing them or flagging them for other parts of the immune system to attack.
While studies have shown conflicting results, the World Health Organization has endorsed the therapy as a priority treatment. Brantly received blood from an Ebola survivor when he was infected in Liberia, and since recovering, has donated his own blood to another missionary, Rick Sacra, as well. Brantly could not donate his blood to Duncan, the deceased Ebola patient, because his blood type was incompatible, Texas Health Presbyterian said on Oct. 9.
Pham’s dog is also under watch by the city, though Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has said that the pet is important to her and won’t be euthanized. Excalibur, the dog owned by a Spanish nursing assistant infected with Ebola, was put down. The Dallas canine will instead be sent to a new location to await its owner’s recovery.
A service at Our Lady of Fatima yesterday was attended by more than 30 parishioners, who bowed their heads in prayer for Pham. The congregation’s updates on Pham have come from her mother, who is in contact with her through Skype, according to Le.
“Her mom said she looks well and that she is OK,” Khoi said.
–With assistance from Anita Kumar in Princeton, Romy Varghese in Philadelphia and Caroline Chen in New York.