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Retired Smokejumper To Fight Ebola In Liberia

by Vivian Ho-SF Chronicle Staff Writer |

Davis Perkins (NCSB-72) is used to jumping into disasters.

He’s a 64-year-old landscape painter, but before he semiretired he had been a firefighter and paramedic, as well as a U.S. Army paratrooper and a smoke jumper, parachuting into crash sites and forest fires to conduct rescues.

This week, Perkins will be jumping into a disaster unique to anything he — and much of the world — has experienced.

The San Rafael resident leaves Wednesday as one of nine volunteers nationwide who plan to help establish an Ebola treatment unit in the West African country of Liberia with the nonprofit Heart to Heart International.

“This is a whole different ballgame, for sure,” Perkins said Tuesday. “It will require ultra-vigilance, to the extreme, but I feel mentally pretty prepared. I realize that this is going to be entirely unique for me, and that I have to have complete focus on being safe.”

Heart to Heart International’s unit, set to open this month, will treat patients with Ebola or symptoms of the virus, providing them a safe place to recover while keeping them isolated, said spokesman Dan Weinbaum.

“We know how bad the virus is,” Weinbaum said. “As a humanitarian medical aid organization, we are compelled to go and help stop the spread of the virus.”

In addition to the volunteers, the nonprofit has staff on the ground and will hire Liberians to work with them, Weinbaum said. The group hopes to have at least 200 people working at the treatment unit, with each one going through a week of training.

Perkins, the only volunteer from the Bay Area, will be providing support to doctors and nurse practitioners, such as keeping patients’ fevers down and administering IVs.
Perkins thinks he was chosen for the Liberia mission because of his experience. He was a firefighter and paramedic in San Carlos and Belmont, and has training in handling hazardous materials.

After retiring, he worked in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and joined medical teams providing aid in Ethiopia and Cambodia.
“It can be challenging, but at the same time it’s rewarding,” he said. “The people I’m with are just top-notch and we get a lot of good work done.”

Perkins said that while most of his friends are supportive of his most recent trip, his 23-year-old daughter “was nervous as hell” when she learned he was going to Liberia.
But he said he felt that he had no other choice. “It’s who I am, and it’s what I do,” he said.

“What is it they say about firefighters? They run into the building when everybody is running out?” Perkins chuckled. “This is so damn frightening, what this epidemic is. There is a desperate, desperate need for people on the ground right now, and I just felt that if anybody is going to do it, it should be me.

“I have the fortune enough to have some of the skills that are going to be needed,” he said. “I hope I can do some good.”

Perkins said he was “not even thinking about” the possibility that when he returns in six weeks, he might face a quarantine and public stigma. He also knows that many patients under his care may die.

“You have to accept that people are dying around you,” he said, “but I know in my heart that this team I’m on, we are going to be saving people.”