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Here Am I. Send Me.

Brianna Burkins ('08) at Ebola Treatment CenterA native of Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, Brianna Burkins never dreamed she would one day be a nurse. In fact, after growing up with several family members working as nurses, early on she knew she did not want to go that route for a career. Little did she know that she would one day not only become an RN, but she would volunteer to travel to an Ebola ravaged country in West Africa to help provide treatment and care to those in need.

In 2003, Burkins went on a mission trip with her sister, who is a nurse, to the Dominican Republic just before Burkins’ senior year in high school. “While there, God showed me what I could do as a nurse. I knew then, He had called me into nursing.” Burkins later participated in medical mission trips to Honduras and Costa Rica.

After high school, Burkins went on to graduate from King in 2008 with her BSN. Currently, she works in cardiovascular surgery recovery at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C.

While in Bristol in Sept. 2014 for the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, Burkins spent time with the Rev. Dr. Fred Foy Strang, and his wife, Dr. Cecily Strang. With the Strang’s ties to Africa through mission work and both Cecily and Brianna being nurses, the conversation naturally went to the Ebola crisis currently plaguing West Africa. Once Burkins returned home, she began researching the crisis and organizations, like International Medical Corps and Partners in Health, who were sending nurses.

“I felt like I didn’t have a reason not to go, honestly,” said Burkins. “I’m not married. I don’t have kids. So, I figured if my job would let me, then I would go. My mother and I began praying that if this was what I was supposed to do, my job would give me a leave of absence. My manager was overwhelmingly supportive of my decision to volunteer.”

On Jan. 10, 2015, Burkins flew from the U.S. to Sierra Leone with stops in Senegal and Guinea. “I remember thinking when the plane touched down in Guinea; I’m in the world of Ebola now. I could interact with someone who is sick at any moment.”

Burkins said the volunteers and personnel at the Ebola Treatment Centers (ETC) were top-notch professionals and took great care to not put anyone at risk.

As part of her duties, Burkins would suit up in head-to-toe protective gear to work in the high-risk portion of the ETC. Volunteers were only allowed in those areas from 45 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes.

“While we worked with patients, much of the time we relied on our national nursing staff to help us with the translations. Many of the patients were kids. We had a lot of kids. It was just heartbreaking – all the children. If you are under five [years of age], [contracting Ebola] was essentially a death sentence.”

In the midst of an epidemic of Ebola, it is challenging to find rays of hope, but the volunteers and workers would celebrate their victories. At one point, Burkins and the other medical staff worked mainly in a pediatric ETC that had been set up, because more than half their patients were 15-years old and younger. “You knew it would be a hard week because you would lose a lot of them. But, this particular week we were able to discharge an 8, a 10, and a 13-year-old. A few days later, we were able to send home a five-year-old as well. It was so great to see a few of the kids had survived.”

Close to the end of her time in Sierra Leone, Burkins became sick and was herself placed in an Ebola Treatment Center. “I got to have a little taste of what the other patients had to deal with, not entirely but somewhat. I didn’t have Ebola, but rather was diagnosed with a respiratory cold. The symptoms for Ebola are quite non-specific. It is kind of frightening, because, while you are over there, on any given day, you may have two of the eight symptoms [for Ebola]. You might be nauseous; you might have diarrhea because you are in a foreign country, and your food has changed.”

Brianna Burkins ('08)Upon returning to the U.S. six weeks later on Feb. 26, as a precaution, Burkins was quarantined for 11 days, and then monitored for 10 additional days. She was then released with a clean bill of health.

When asked if given the opportunity to volunteer again in the Ebola crisis or another like it, would she? Burkins replied with an emphatic yes. “It is something I am already exploring. I have a nursing job I love here at home, but, yes, I would love to do it again. Something I am passionate about is health education. In areas such as the one in which I volunteered, there is so much they do not know about simple disease prevention and infection control.”

To her fellow alumni and the King community, Burkins’ concluded by saying “if a crisis like the Ebola epidemic has pulled at your heartstrings, and you feel you need to help in some way, just do it. It might be terrifying. People might say ‘you are crazy,’ but there is a reason [God] wants you to do it. If you don’t, you may never know what that reason is. Just do it. For me, I know now God has been preparing me my whole life for this. I am thankful for heeding His call.”