If Maine conjures up images of pine-covered mountains and rocky coastlines, then Fort Kent won’t fit into your construct. Slumbering on the broad flat valley of the Saint John River that forms Maine’s border with Canada, the rolling farmland around this town of 4,000 would remind you more of Iowa. Aroostook County is potato country and is so unique that most Mainers refer to it simply as “The County.”
Fort Kent was originally built as a defense outpost but was seldom used. Today it is an unlikely spot for what could be one of the pivotal battles in a war that could decide our country’s future. But who in 1800 would have guessed that the small town of Gettysburg would have such a crucial role to play in American history.
And, who would imagine that a pixy-faced young woman with strawberry ringlets would be one of the heroes? But, on Halloween Day, 2014, the chief judge of the Maine District Courts ruled that Kaci Hickox was no longer to be quarantined in her home. As a nurse who had recently returned from West Africa where she had been caring for patients with Ebola, she certainly was at a higher risk for contracting the disease. But, there has been no clinical evidence that she had the disease or was contagious.
However, the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, ignored the facts and responded to irrational fear and isolated Ms. Hickox when she arrived from Africa in an unheated tent with little regard for her psychological comfort. With the help of her lawyer, she was allowed to travel back to Fort Kent where she had been living with her boyfriend, a nursing student. The governor of Maine, Paul LePage, reacted only slightly less irrationally than his New Jersey counterpart, and Kaci was ordered not leave her home. Negotiations for a more reasonable evidence-based arrangement broke down. And, in a brave and clever show of defiance, Kaci and her boyfriend went for a bike ride, heading away from town on the rural roads around Fort Kent. Were the state troopers following in two squad cars going to don hazmat suits to arrest the couple? Not likely, and the ride ended uneventfully. The next day Judge Charles C. Laverdiere lifted the quarantine and in his decision said that we all owed the nurse “a debt of gratitude” for her decision to treat Ebola patients.
Much of the buzz surrounding this decision has focused on the issue of Ms. Hickox’s personal freedom and even the constitutionality of her quarantine. But, more importantly, her case represents a rare victory in a key battle in a bigger war, the war between science and fear-based irrational thought. It is a war in which we have incurred too many losses. Hundreds of children have died of illnesses from which they could have been protected by immunization because their parents failed to trust the science.
Scientific thought is on the defensive. It is being poorly taught in school, and sadly a few who claim to be scientists have allowed their egos and greed to taint the results of their experiments. In the vacuum created when science has been ignored, fear and emotionally based decisions dominate.
In the case of Ebola, we all have suffered from the absence of a single voice of authority armed with evidence. It could have been the U.S. Surgeon General if the Senate hadn’t declined to confirm President Barack Obama’s appointment because of his position on gun-related issues.
However, even if we had a surgeon general, the most obvious choice for the role of defender and promoter of evidence-based decisions in a case that is so highly charged should have been the president himself. The country deserved a straight talking, look-em-in-the-eye delineation of the facts, a presentation that acknowledged that there are seldom situations in which the risk is zero, but one that reminded us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. However, this president’s style seems to be to step back and delegate when we need someone who will step forward and lead. The result of his abdication has been the confusing and conflicting attempts at leadership by three governors who may have been well intended, but lacked the skills and resources to address the scientific evidence.
In a battle with no general and a commander-in-chief who chose to stay in his tent, science has been rescued temporarily by a courageous young nurse and sage judge from Maine where our state motto is “Dirigo” – I lead.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.