Phoenix Nurse Prepares To Treat Ebola Patients

By Jude Joffe-Block
January 30, 2015


Jason Odhner, right, at the Phoenix Allies for Community Health clinic, with Leigh Bowie, left.

Data released this week from the World Health Organization show the number of new Ebola infections in West Africa has slowed substantially. The outbreak is still not over, but the organization says the response has shifted from slowing transmission of the disease to ending the epidemic.

But experts say much more work must be done.

So far more than 8,800 people have died from this epidemic, and among them some 500 health care workers, according to the World Health Organization. 

Despite the risks, nurses and doctors continue signing up to help.

The Boston-based organization Partners in Health has sent more than 400 health care workers to treat Ebola patients. One of their newest recruits is Jason Odhner, a 38-year-old Phoenix nurse.

Up until very recently, Odhner worked full time at a Phoenix hospital, and spent another 25 hours a week at a clinic called Phoenix Allies for Community Health, or PACH.

“We are a small, grassroots, volunteer-driven free clinic,” Odhner said during a shift at PACH on a recent Saturday.

Odhner is tall and wears a low ponytail. I've known him for over a year. He’s a community activist, and — his friends say — a miracle worker.

He helped to found PACH with the goal of treating uninsured patients.

“What we focus on is diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol,” Odhner said. “That is really what kills people.”

In this country, at least. But now Odhner is turning his attention to a much different killer, the Ebola virus.

On Monday, Odhner leaves for four days of training in Boston. Then he is off to Sierra Leone for at least six weeks, maybe more. He was inspired to go as an act of solidarity with health care workers there.

Odhner sounds matter-of-fact about the mission, the risks and the sacrifice.

“They are asking for help,” Odhner said. “They are begging the international community to step up, and so it is time for us to do that.”

Like many of those who know Odhner, my first thought was that he, too, could get sick.

So far more than 800 health care workers have been infected, and more than half have died from the disease, according to statistics from the World Health Organization.

“I have an appointment to actually remake my will and get all of my final documents in order before I go,” Odhner said.

Anyone doing this kind of work needs to prepare for all outcomes, he said.

“The mortality rate among health workers has been uncomfortably high,” Odhner said. “That is real. But that doesn’t really factor into the moral imperative too much. What needs to get done needs to get done.”

One of the first people Odhner told about his intention to go was his friend and fellow nurse, Leigh Bowie.

“I remember Jason telling me that he didn’t want to be that person who had the experience, didn’t have children and is a good candidate to go — that he couldn’t really live with himself if he didn’t make the effort,” Bowie said.

Odhner worries this Ebola outbreak hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves in this country.

“People don’t care enough of the damage that it can do if it spreads to other parts of Africa or other resource-poor countries,” Odhner said. “This is a problem because it is a health issue whether or not it affects a rich country.”

Last Saturday night, friends streamed into Odhner’s home for a potluck to send him off. Many of them know him through health care and activist circles.

Laura Ilardo came with her toddler daughter, Isa, in her arms to say goodbye.

“Jason is going away for a long time,” Ilardo explained to Isa.

“How are you feeling?” she then asked Odhner.

“I am doing well,” he said. “I am doing well. I feel ready.”

Another friend, Laura Glass-Hess, said she wasn’t surprised Odhner signed up to be an Ebola nurse, since he spends so much of his time trying to help sick people.

Glass-Hess explained, for example, what a typical Facebook post from Odhner might be:  

“'There is a woman that needs a surgery and needs $10,000.  Everyone donate quick, we need it by tomorrow.'”

Or, “'Is anyone able to interpret today at the clinic? I need four people,'” Glass-Hess said. “And he gets people to do it.”

Odhner’s friends chanted for him to give a speech. They circled around him as he stood up on a chair.

“I just feel really, really blessed to have you in my house tonight,”Odhner said. “And I look forward to coming home to you all.”

The crowd clapped and someone said, “We love you, Jason.”

When Odhner does return home — the earliest would be mid-April — he will follow county health department regulations. He will have to monitor his temperature twice daily for at least three weeks.