When Preston Gorman was wheeled out of the National Institutes of Health nearly five years ago, he was, medically speaking, among the most fortunate people on the planet.
His doctors had just defeated advanced Ebola, one of the most fearsome infections known to medicine. Gorman and his family were sent home to Texas in the same private jet that had raced him to the NIH in Bethesda, Md., from Sierra Leone.
And then Gorman’s life fell apart. One of the luckiest men alive, he considered suicide. “No one said … ‘none of your family is gonna understand, none of your friends are going to understand and you’re not going to understand,’ ” he said.
Gorman was one of 11 people treated for Ebola in the U.S. during the 2014-2016 outbreak. Research has revealed extensive post-traumatic stress among Ebola survivors, their caregivers and witnesses to the widespread death.
In Sierra Leone, Gorman was all three.
Gorman, 38, trained as a firefighter and paramedic, then as a physician assistant. When Ebola broke out in West Africa, he volunteered with the nonprofit Partners in Health, which had opened a treatment center in Maforki, Sierra Leone.
No one knows how Gorman contracted the disease. Steadily weakening, he was sent to a treatment facility for caregivers run by the British Army. When they arrived, no one came to help. He let himself out of the back of the ambulance and barely made it to the entrance.
Arrangements were made to send him to NIH. A four-hour ride to the airstrip would be followed by a 16-hour flight. “I’ve got two IV’s and I’ve got two catheters sticking out of me that I’m going to have to take with me on this damn ambulance and be all by myself the whole time,” he recalled. “Nobody was gonna get in the back.”
Daniel Chertow, who would be one of Gorman’s doctors, met him at Dulles International Airport and rode with him in the back of an ambulance to NIH. Chertow said: “We’re going to take care of you,” Gorman recalled. “I’ll never forget that.”
Gorman’s chances of survival in Sierra Leone were zero. At NIH, one of the most advanced medical facilities in the world, his odds were only slightly better. He was one of the sickest patients ever housed in the unit, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and one of Gorman’s doctors.
One by one, Gorman’s organs began to fail. Before he was put on a ventilator, he asked Richard Davey, chief of NIAID’s clinical research section and his lead physician, if he would wake up. “I believe you will,” Davey said.
Gorman doesn’t remember any of the 10 days he was sedated. But 25 days after he arrived, he was moved out of isolation. “And for the first time in a month, I get to have human contact. And the first person in the room is my mom.”
Gorman said he felt enormous pressure to move on with his life. One friend told him: “Hey, dude. Ebola was last year. You need to get over it,” he said. Others implied that he was not praying enough. Overwhelmed, he cut himself off from his family.
“We didn’t realize the depth and the seriousness that Preston was facing post-Ebola,” his father, Gene Gorman, said.
Today Gorman is climbing back. He has a job and new friends in Austin. He still struggles at times, but he feels joy again. And hope. “It forced me to dig deep, find out who I really was, and rely on God’s direction in the healing process that is still ongoing to this day,” he said.