Every day Dr. Brigette Gleason spent in Sierra Leone this fall helping fight Ebola was filled with tragedy and the specter of death.

Next to the office where she analyzed reports and helped shape local response to the epidemic, burial teams donned protective suits before going to handle the dead.

Gleason, a doctor for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who is now the agency's point person in Virginia, found herself blocking out many awful details.

It was the only way to keep working.

"You have to separate yourself from some of the reality sometimes. You can't save everyone. If you get emotionally invested in everyone you care for, it could be devastating. The idea is to focus on the progress you can make and on acting and doing," Gleason said. "I think that being there and knowing that I was helping was one thing that really made it easy to keep going.

"You knew if you didn't do anything, things would get worse."

Gleason, who is based at the Virginia Department of Health as part of her CDC fellowship, will speak about her September visit to Sierra Leone at noon today at the Science Museum of Virginia on Broad Street.

Gleason's lecture, which is free to the public, is titled "Overview of the Ebola Epidemic: Insights from the Field in Sierra Leone and Key Features of the Ebola Response in the U.S."

More than 1,000 people in Sierra Leone, and more than 5,000 in West Africa, have died since the outbreak began earlier this year. Dr. Martin Salia, a surgeon who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone, died this week after being flown back to the U.S. for treatment.

The Bombali district where Gleason worked was among the hardest hit. And while she was there, it had only holding areas where patients could receive basic care, but not Ebola treatment centers.

Many of the hospitals had closed because they couldn't keep their employees safe from the virus, she said.

Gleason's job as an epidemic intelligence service officer for the CDC kept her away from people who were infected. Her job was more about coordinating care and working to slow the spread of the disease. Occasionally she'd go into communities to hear firsthand accounts and check to make sure people quarantined to their homes were receiving the food they were promised.

"For the most part, we knew if we were going anywhere where there would be someone infectious, we would not get within a stone's throw away so there would be no risk of exposing ourselves to the virus," she said.

Gleason said the majority of her work since returning to Virginia has been helping with the state's preparation for Ebola. The state has had no confirmed cases.

Even if a case were to be treated in Virginia, most people who aren't treating or in close contact with the patient have nothing to worry about, she said. The disease only spreads through bodily fluids.

"The best preparation that any person can do is just to familiarize yourself with the facts. It will reduce unnecessary fear and panic," Gleason said. "If you're not around someone who is symptomatic and getting their fluids in contact with your body, you have nothing, absolutely nothing, to worry about."

jramsey@timesdispatch.com (804) 649-6911

Creative solutions

U.S. hospitals get resourceful in preparing for Ebola patients.

Lunch Break Science Program

What: Dr. Brigette Gleason will speak about her recent trip to Sierra Leone to help with the Ebola epidemic there. She'll also address the U.S. response to the virus.

When: Today at noon

Where: The Science Museum of Virginia, 2500 W. Broad St.

Details: The lecture is free to the public. Seating is limited.

"The best preparation that any person can do is just to familiarize yourself with the facts. It will reduce unnecessary fear and panic. If you're not around someone who is symptomatic and getting their fluids in contact with your body, you have nothing, absolutely nothing, to worry about." - Dr. Brigitte Gleason, who spent time in Sierra Leone helping the fight against Ebola

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