David de la Cruz steps out of the vinyl tent at a field hospital in Liberia, West Africa. He and his team have just lost a patient to the Ebola virus. As he waits outside, the body is carried away, under the strictest precautions. Ebola is most contagious at the time of death. Here, near the edge of a hot, mountainous jungle, de la Cruz is among the volunteers fighting the largest Ebola outbreak in history.
The dead man’s brother approaches. He wants to thank de la Cruz and his colleagues. To tell them how proud he is of his brother, who had worked in a distant village treating other Ebola patients. It was a death sentence. But he knows it was his brother’s calling to help his country’s people—just as the volunteers continue to do.
This would be the right moment for an embrace. Yet, de la Cruz must keep a distance of at least six feet. Everyone must be treated as if they are infected. It is hard keeping physical distance from life among so much death. It will be even harder three days later when the man shows up again, infected with Ebola—harder still when his sister and mother arrive, also infected.
de la Cruz (GSPH ’91) is a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS). In fall 2014, President Barack Obama activated the USPHS Commissioned Corps, a uniformed service of public health officers. He called on the Corps volunteers to be “hope multipliers” in Liberia, where the country was being ravaged by the West African Ebola outbreak. More than 10,000 people became infected in Liberia alone.
Assigned as the deputy officer in charge and executive officer of a team of 76 officers who arrived at the height of the outbreak, de la Cruz helped orchestrate the unit’s daily operations, a job that Pitt had prepared him to do well.
During his graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, he says, he realized public health is a holistic discipline touching all aspects of a society, from infrastructure to information. After earning a Pitt master’s degree in public health, he completed a PhD at the University of South Carolina. He now works in Washington, D.C., as a deputy director in a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, where he oversees perinatal health initiatives in 100 communities around the nation.
He remains active, too, in the USPHS Commissioned Corps, which has deployed him to fight health crises all over the nation—and in Liberia when Ebola raged.
de la Cruz’s team saw a total of 42 Liberian patients who all became infected while risking their lives treating others. Each loss was heartbreaking. Outside the hospital, the volunteers erected a blue wall to honor their patients. Each survivor dipped their hands in yellow paint, then pressed them on the wall. Inside, patients still hoping for recovery asked each other: “Can you smell the yellow paint yet?”
Sadly, the two brothers that de la Cruz encountered and treated would not dip their hands into the yellow paint. Both lost their lives. But he got yellow handprints from their mother and sister, and that’s something to embrace and hold.