FORT KENT, Maine — At the Moose Shack restaurant, there’s about $250 in gift certificates waiting for nurse Kaci Hickox and her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur, purchased for the couple from people in Ohio, Washington, Indiana and Missouri during the peak of the media frenzy around them.
As Hickox’s 21-day monitoring for Ebola virus exposure comes to an end midnight Monday, though, it’s unlikely she and Wilbur will be in Fort Kent long enough to use them.
“We are leaving by the end of the week,” Wilbur said Saturday afternoon while seated at the couple’s kitchen table. “At this point we are planning to head south, spend time with family, and after that, we really don’t know.”
For the past two weeks, Hickox and Wilbur have been in the center of a national debate on the level of isolation appropriate for aid workers returning from Ebola-stricken nations in West Africa, as well as fighting legal battles in two states.
This weekend, the two sat down with the Bangor Daily News for a wide ranging interview on the impact it has had on their lives, taking a stand for civil liberties, that famous bike ride and their decision to leave Maine once her 21 days of self-monitoring concludes on Nov. 10.
Wilbur and Hickox were quick to say their planned move has nothing to do with the Fort Kent community, rather what Wilbur termed “a lack of leadership” on the the part of the University of Maine at Fort Kent, where he was studying nursing.
On Friday, Wilbur withdrew from the campus’ accelerated nursing program, accusing campus officials of failing to address concerns he had about returning to classes this week. Since Hickox’s return, Wilbur had been participating in the nursing program at UMFK via online classes or by phoning in to on-campus lectures.
UMFK officials were working on a plan to reintegrate Wilbur into the campus, where his presence was controversial. Wilbur said campus officials told him students had expressed concerns about his return, even making threats against him should he return to class.
“They said they were going to warn the students I was coming back and that I would probably face harassment and discrimination,” Wilbur said. “If that did happen, they said I could tell [Associate Dean of Student Life] Ray Phinney and he’d ‘keep track of it’ and discipline appropriately.”
Wilbur said that response felt far short of one adequate for an institution of higher learning.
“We had a broad body of concerns to deal with,” Dan Demeritt, University of Maine System spokesman said Saturday. “Campus officials worked closely with first responders, health workers and local law enforcement on this, [and] we truly regret he did not think we did enough to address his concerns.”
But in the end, Demeritt said, officials needed to balance the safety and concerns of everyone involved and an earnest effort was made to accommodate Wilbur.
“I asked for something more protective,” Wilbur said. “I did not feel safe, secure or supported by the campus officials, [and] I will now pursue my nursing degree at another institution.”
‘It was surreal’
It’s a lot quieter these days on the road in front of the Hickox and Wilbur’s home. Traffic — what little there is of it — is back to normal after the departure of the last of the network news crews last weekend.
But for a week, the national and international press were focused on the small two-story house as Hickox, after successfully fighting quarantine orders in New Jersey, battled an attempt by the state and Gov. Paul LePage to keep her inside for the full 21 days.
On Oct. 31, Chief Judge Charles LaVerdiere ruled the Maine Department of Health and Human Services failed to prove that limiting Hickox’s movements was necessary to protect others from the danger of infection.
In the days leading up to the decision, news crews lined the country road in front of Hickox and Wilbur’s home, and every move — from accepting a pizza delivery to her famous short bike ride — was met with a scramble of reporters and cameras.
“It was surreal,” Hickox said.
And what about that bike ride?
“For us, it was definitely a lovely outing,” Hickox said. “We had not been out of the house in days, and we’d been through a lot.”
The couple stressed, however, it was indeed an act of civil disobedience aimed at forcing LePage’s hand with regards to the court order.
“The reality is when a state decides to quarantine somebody, they have certain responsibilities, and one of those is to actually get a court order,” Hickox said. “That is just the fact of quarantine law in many states.”
Confining someone to their home without such an order, Wilbur said, is the same as tossing someone in jail without first informing an individual of their rights or charging them.
“So in the state of Maine, it was the attorney general, the governor and the health commissioner’s responsibility to get a court order to force me into quarantine,” Hickox said.
“We had to force the governor through civil disobedience to actually do his job of actually getting that court order,” Wilbur said.
“We were fighting for so much more than my rights and freedoms,” Hickox said. “Now when aid workers return, they are going to understand calling up a lawyer is not a bad idea if they are being asked to sign some in-home quarantine order.”
What people failed to realize, Wilbur said, was Hickox’s first-hand knowledge of Ebola and what it can do. Hickox spent four weeks as the medical team leader for a 35-bed, 250-staff Ebola treatment facility in Sierra Leone this past September and October.
“If Kaci had gotten sick or started running a fever, the first thing she would do for her own safety, for my safety and for everybody’s safety is go to a hospital and get tested,” he said.
As for what happens once the two head south, Hickox and Wilbur are keeping their options open. Wilbur says he will pursue his nursing degree. Once he has it, Hickox said, the two may pursue their dream of working together overseas in public health.
“We both have a passion for travel and other cultures and going to places to meet medical needs,” Hickox said. “That kind of work has been a passion of mine, and it’s not often you meet someone who gets it, [and] Ted and I are looking forward to a life together doing just that.”
In Fort Kent, Hickox spurred mixed reactions.
Some demanded she stay inside or leave town. Several groups on social media sprang up demanding she leave the state altogether. At the same time, many residents sent notes of support to Hickox and even dropped off groceries and homemade baked goods.
“Yeah, people have been really incredible, and for all those who have supported us, ‘thank you’ really isn’t enough,” Wilbur said. “Those people have given us the strength to get by, and we have had some really rough days, and they have helped us get through those rough days, so ‘thank you’ does not really cover the kind of love and appreciation we feel for all the support we have been given from so many people that we don’t even know.”
Over at the Moose Shack — home of Hickox’s favorite pizza — there also was disappointment they were leaving town.
“That’s really too bad,” said April Hafford, daughter of the owner of the Moose Shack. “It makes me really sad to hear that.”
Ever since the restaurant got exposure on national television after Hickox mentioned it by name during a press conference, offers of support poured in from around the country.
“For the most part, people are calling and wanting to buy them pizza,” Hafford said. “I just want [Hickox and Wilbur] to know there are a lot of people who support them.”
Among those supporters is Fort Kent Police Chief Tom Pelletier, who was in daily contact with the couple and was often seen delivering groceries to the house and doing his best to ensure they felt safe in the community.
“I wish they were sticking around,” Pelletier said Saturday. “Ted and Kaci have been well within their rights in everything they have done.”