No water. No water for the spray to decontaminate the hazmat suit after two hours working in a Liberian clinic that treats Ebola patients. Dr. Jeff Deal really did bet his life on the robot.
The day the clinic ran out of water he turned circles like a chicken on a rotisserie in front the ultraviolet light-emitting robot he and his brother invented to kill viruses, a ray that can be strong enough to destroy his DNA. But he knew the intensity had been turned down to where the hazmat suit protected him.
He turned circles for eight minutes before taking off the suit.
"About six minutes longer than you had to," he said. "But it is Ebola."
Deal, 60, of West Ashley, returned earlier this week from a two-week mission in Liberia at two clinics treating patients who have the Ebola hemorrhagic fever, the virus that has now killed more than 1,900 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He was in Africa to train workers how to use the robot, volunteering for Tru-D SmartUVC. The Memphis, Tenn. company now holding a patent for the device donated two of the $100,000-plus machines. The device destroys virus cells on equipment and materials by irradiating them, destroying the DNA.
Deal is a tall, quiet man with a pastoral demeanor and a measured voice. As he talks, he folds one hand in the other, clasping and unclasping.
The last thing he wants is to fuel panic in Africa or here in the United States over what he calls "a very ugly bug." But when health officials recently announced that the outbreak in Africa is completely out of control, it was something he already knew.
Deal is a former surgeon who turned to studying tropical diseases after retinal disease impaired vision in one eye. He now works for Water Missions International in North Charleston, which builds water purifications devices for communities without sanitation, to fight those diseases.
He talks about walking into a Liberian clinic that had operated functionally the day before and having to step past patients lying shoulder to shoulder on the floor, "massive waves of extraordinarily ill people" who just kept arriving.
"This outbreak is just different. I don't know how to describe it. It's like a slow motion disaster you're watching unfold," he said. The close quarters of the poor communities where it's occurring and the overload on the health centers still operating make it impossible right now even to get out ahead to contain it, Deal said.
On top of that, it's rainy season in that part of the world. Malaria is spiking, typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis - diseases whose symptoms Ebola mimics. Health workers scrambling to treat those patients are getting infected. "The burial crews can't keep up," he said.
Going to work each day meant laboriously donning the heavy hazmat suit, helped by others, then fighting off the heat, breathing under the mask to do the job. He'd bend over to perform a task, get dizzy and see sparks when he straightened up.
Deal and the people he trained were able to work only two-hour shifts, "because you'd faint and you really don't want to faint in an Ebola treatment unit," he said. But so far, every health worker who has followed the safety protocols and put on the gear has escaped contamination, he said.
Meanwhile, at least one doctor working nearby with less gear was diagnosed.
The countries where the outbreak is occurring are fighting against quarantines and embargoes. The first pilot refused to make the flight Deal took into Liberia and had to be substituted. Liberia is a food importing nation, and with imports dropping off the overall health situation is getting worse.
The water shortage Deal dealt with at the clinic is a symptom of a desperate situation with the availability of safe drinking water. At Deal's alert, Water Missions has shipped to Liberia five purification devices capable of providing water for 100,000 people, 10 chlorination devices, solar panels and water quality test kits, said Julie Johnson, of Water Missions.
Pat Haughney, the mission's disaster response manager, will travel to Liberia to work with the Liberian Water and Sewer Authority on installing the equipment.
"That's huge," Deal said. "A place like that, life balances on the edge of a knife. Even in the best of times, it doesn't take much," he said. "They need supplies. Now."
In the halls alongside the daily horrors, Deal saw the best in people, he said, the compassion of workers fighting the outbreak. He talks about the beatific smile on the nurse working without gear - who had been infected, recovered and now is immune, or the young boy who is the only survivor in his family washing down plastic mattresses because he wants to help.
Deal never was certain during the mission whether that flight home would be allowed to take off, and when it did "there was pretty serious celebrating going on by the passengers in that plane," he said. He wrestles with feeling guilty about not staying to do more. He's now pushing legislators and officials for a "game changer" in getting ahead of the disease.
"The U.S. military could solve the problem," Deal said. Across the world, tent field hospitals are stockpiled but largely unused. If deployed en masse in West Africa, "frankly it would stop the geometric escalation of disease they're experiencing because of lack of space," Deal said.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.