As authorities confirmed that a second nurse had contracted Ebola, I was boarding a flight to Dallas. Work meetings would have me there for two days and two nights. Media reports would have me wondering if I would soon be obliged to self-quarantine.
During a layover in Atlanta, I decided to pitch my professional tent by one of the outlet poles so I could charge my phone. To my great misfortune, this decision tethered me to a post within earshot of the CNN broadcast blaring from the television over my head. The dulcet tones of Anderson Cooper conveyed news about hospitals and protocols, protective layers and exposed necks, bodily fluids and more bodily fluids.
Flashing my eyes at the screen, I saw Anderson posted in front of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, wearing his grim expression and standard-issue dark jacket. It was as though I’d clicked through a vintage ViewMaster: Anderson by the exploding bomb in Gaza; Anderson at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; Anderson near the finish line of the Boston marathon. Now, Anderson in front of the fluorescent blue sign for ground zero of Ebola in America.
I was disappointed. Until then, I had limited my exposure to the virulent news coverage surrounding our domesticated Ebola. I had known for weeks that I was going to Dallas, so as word of Thomas Eric Duncan’s diagnosis and treatment broke, I realized I was going to have to do something very uncharacteristic: I was going to have to stop myself from freaking out.
I am, by nature, a worrier. I worry best about things I cannot control. Both air travel and single-handedly containing the spread of contagious diseases fall beautifully within that category.
To pull an Abby would have meant calling the TSA help desk to ask whether I would need to disrobe from my haz-mat suit to go through security. It would have meant taking my temperature during every coffee break. It would have meant booking a cabin in the woods for 21 days of “me time” upon my return.
In this instance, I did not think pulling an Abby would bode well for my reputation, either personal or professional.
Instead, I listened to the divine words of my spiritual guide and savior. In the words of Jon Stewart, news networks were so adeptly ignoring the very experts they asked to explain the disease and its outbreak, they must have a “sanity-resistant strain of fear that has now gone airborne.”
Suddenly, it was as if I was starring in a new version of “The Matrix,” one for the demographic capable of believing a slightly frumpy, occasionally awkward, always hungry working mother might have control over the time-space continuum. Every news outlet crystallized into two separate and entirely unequal parts: One, a coiffed and tanned broadcaster telling me I was about to die because I blinked in the direction of someone whose name began with “E.” The other, a Ph.D. insisting that we all needed to read “Chicken Soup for the Hysterical Soul.”
Listening to the people with the science degrees, I concluded that Ebola is a powerful enemy that I will trust the experts to address, that I hope to never get it, and that my sympathies extend sincerely to those victimized by it. I also decided that I would try to maintain my streak of not stomping in a stranger’s vomit, and that I would never embrace collecting blood as a hobby. I checked my email to confirm that I am a lawyer and not a nurse, and printed my boarding passes.
On my way home from Dallas, I read a Vanity Fair article about Jeff Zucker’s efforts to “save” CNN. The article noted that CNN fares best when there is some ongoing catastrophe like, say, the lost Malaysia airplane, or the potential proliferation of a disease that makes your body do really yucky things. To the scribes behind the teleprompter, Ebola is Gaza is Aurora is Boston.
Ebola is also, undeniably, scary. So is perpetual war, and gun violence, and terrorism. And somehow, facilitating a ratings jump hasn’t made any of them go away.