SEATTLE — Karin Huster encounters death up close, and repeatedly.
She has seen babies perish in their mothers’ arms. She has watched people grieve as their loved ones were buried in white body bags drenched in bleach. She has survived a clinic where she worked being attacked, burned and shot at.
“It’s the best job in the world,” she says. “And I don’t mean this lightly.”
As a nurse and field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, and previously with other organizations, Huster spends six to 12 weeks at a time away from her Seattle home, helping some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Most recently, she has been in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where Ebola has killed 2,006 people and sickened 2,899 since August 2018.
The Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976 in the DRC, then known as Zaire. Death from the virus, which is passed through bodily fluids, is excruciating. Victims often die from dehydration because of severe diarrhea and vomiting. Entire families can be ravaged by the disease after caring for each other at home.
The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global health emergency on July 17, 2019, while Huster was on her fourth trip to the central African nation.
While such declarations don’t always stir her neighbors to action, Huster says Americans should pay attention to Ebola outbreaks in distant lands.
“There are people who are put in situations of extreme fragility, vulnerability — they’re scared and they need help,” Huster said. “That’s why people need to care, because it’s just fundamental. Fundamentally, we’re all human beings. They might be from different countries, but they really are the same. It’s the same planet.”
She points to migrants fleeing Central America for the United States, or areas of extreme poverty in Appalachia, where she has done some volunteer work. Suffering doesn’t respect borders, she says.
Still, when Huster is home, she doesn’t talk much about what she’s seen or been through, or the mental toll it takes. It’s hard to process it with people who are living comfortably in Seattle.
“Even my husband, he even knows better now than to ask,” she said. “You are sort of isolated.”
Huster has yet to use the mental-health services Doctors Without Borders provides. Her main outlet has been writing op-eds in newspapers and medical journals.
In a 2014 Seattle Times op-ed, she addressed the fear that gripped the U.S. after a man with Ebola traveled from West Africa to Texas, where he died. The panicked rhetoric and policy decisions that followed, she argued, discouraged American health workers from traveling to help stem the outbreak — ironically making it more likely the virus would spread across the globe.
Helping people in need has been Huster’s dream since she was a child growing up on Réunion Island, a French island in the Indian Ocean about 590 miles east of Madagascar.
Her Dutch mother and French father bought a black-and-white television and would only let her and her brother watch the news. It was the late 1960s, and the Nigerian-Biafran War was raging. Huster recalls seeing “people dying of starvation and this group of doctors that were coming to help, and (thinking), ‘Ah, that’s what I want to do.’”
In 1991, Huster moved to Seattle for a job with Microsoft translating Word into French. There, she met her husband, Frank, who was translating Excel into French. They had two children, and she settled into a stable life in her adopted home.
But those childhood dreams began to gnaw at her.
She quit Microsoft, enrolled in the University of Washington’s nursing school, and spent eight years as a nurse in the intensive-care unit at Harborview Medical Center before going back to UW for a master’s degree in global health.
While in school in 2012, Huster went to Lebanon to work with Syrian refugees. Two years later, she joined a group called Partners in Health in the fight against the world’s largest known Ebola outbreak, which was sweeping through West Africa and ultimately killed 11,325 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Over the past few years, Huster’s work has also brought her to the city of Mosul, where she treated civilians injured in battles between the Islamic State and Iraqi forces, and to Mozambique to help victims of a devastating cyclone.
Students aren’t always cut out for working in the field the way Huster does, said Stephen Gloyd, who has directed the master’s program in the UW’s Department of Global Health since 1988. What set her apart, he said, was the right combination of commitment, interpersonal skills and fearlessness.
“There is a remarkable theme that aligns all of her work in that she is the first person to follow her mission, her passion, to help people in emergency settings,” Gloyd said.
Huster’s third deployment to the DRC, in May, ended abruptly after a new Ebola clinic was burned and, two days later, a group of men rammed a car through a barrier and began shooting at the temporary treatment center.
The people in this region, which borders Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, have an understandable deep-rooted mistrust of the central government and question the massive response to Ebola when compared to other persistent health issues, Huster said.
“People are angry,” she said. “They say to you, ‘You don’t care about us for 30 years, 40 years, and now all of a sudden, you care about us because it’s Ebola, but what about my kid who just died of malaria?'”
Public-health workers in West Africa found it effective to take into account the worries and concerns of the local population as a way to treat Ebola more broadly. This holistic approach has been slow coming in the DRC, Huster said.
Since returning, she has reached out to the DRC’s health ministry and local governments to discuss treatment strategies and ensure the safety of the mission. Huster is also speaking to the region’s motorcycle groups, which act as taxis and are at risk of being exposed to Ebola when transporting sick patients. Traditional healers and women’s groups are also on her docket, she says, because women are influential in their communities and are the ones who initially take care of the sick.
An even greater sense of urgency has come to the fight as Ebola has spread from North Kivu to two neighboring provinces, and a Congolese girl who traveled to Uganda was found to have the virus.
But there have also been some positive developments lately. A second vaccine is having promising results, and two of four treatments being field-tested have health-care workers feeling optimistic.
Huster is scheduled to leave the DRC on Sept. 7. She’ll come home for a month or two before returning to her mission.
“My goal in life is nothing else but to try to improve people’s lives,” she said. “I’m not in there for the money, you know. If I were, then I’d still be at Microsoft.”