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Moving Ebola Patients Practiced in Spokane Exercise

Gerry Bozarth/Spokane County Emergency Management

Emergency medical training happens all the time in our area, but an event Wednesday was unusual. In this case, a 747 en route from Boise landed at Spokane International Airport. It was carrying a staff of medical professionals and four patients pretending to have the Ebola virus.

The nose of the plane opened up and workers wearing special protective gear wheeled a gurney with a similarly gowned up patient out to a lift. From there, they were lowered to the ground and a medical worker walked with the patient to a waiting ambulance, which took them to Sacred Heart. The hospital is one of 10 in the nation designated by the federal government as a regional treatment center for people with deadly and transmissible diseases such as Ebola. The other two patients were to be flown to Los Angeles later in the afternoon.

As part of this exercise, the plane sat on the tarmac for a couple of hours to allow local officials, from the mayor to the regional health officer, to get a tour. We went along too.

Imagine a huge airliner stripped of its seats, except for about 10 rows of two on the right side of the plane.

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR
Medical transport workers wait for an ebola "patient" to be wheeled out from a specially-outfitted 747 to be transported via ambulance to Sacred Heart Medical Center.

The big jet is operated by Phoenix Air, which bills itself as the only company in the world capable of transporting highly infectious patients in an intensive care unit environment. It’s the firm the State Department calls when it’s necessary to move people with highly infectious diseases from overseas back to the U-S.

The main features inside are two big white containers, each the size of a single-wide mobile home. These are the areas where the patients and their caregivers are quarantined

Over his blue jumpsuit, Vance Ferebee wears a vest that reads “Safety Officer.” Ferebee is the nurse manager for the air ambulance division of Phoenix Air. He takes us inside one of these units. Ferebee calls it a box. On a medical transport mission, this box is home to as many as nine people, five medical staff and up to four patients.

The box has three areas. The main room is a unit with four metal cots where the patients can lie down, hooked up to medical monitors.

Ferebee takes us to a small room on the end where people enter the unit. You’ll hear him reference two acronyms that are probably foreign to you. “PPE” stands for personal protective equipment and “papper” means powered air  purifying respirator. (Click the box to hear our audio tour.)