FORT KENT, Maine — A year ago this coming week, a nurse and her fiance took a leisurely bicycle ride that was followed around the world.
Kaci Hickox had come to live in Fort Kent with her boyfriend after being quarantined in New Jersey following her return from Africa, where she treated patients suffering from the Ebola virus.
For the following week, the international media spotlight was on this town of 4,800 people on the Canadian border as Hickox and her attorney tangled with Gov. Paul LePage and officials with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which attempted through a proposed court order to prevent Hickox from entering public places and tried unsuccessfully to confine her to her Fort Kent home for 21 days.
A judge eventually denied the order, but Hickox and her boyfriend Ted Wilbur, a then-nursing student at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, agreed to keep a low profile for 21 days.
Hickox also agreed to daily Ebola testing administered by a health official with the Maine Centers for Disease Control.
She never tested positive for the disease.
Today, Hickox and Wilbur — who married this past June — are living in Oregon, where she is a clinical nurse educator and he’s teaching seventh grade.
Hickox and her attorneys announced this week she is suing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other New Jersey public health officials in federal court for her treatment under quarantine, which she referred to as “illegal imprisonment.”
“I’ve had a whole year to think about things,” she said Thursday by phone from her Springfield, Oregon, home. “It’s been difficult at times, but I think what I take from what happened more than anything is that we have to protect our constitutional rights and make sure we don’t allow reckless politicians to make poor decisions that are not based on science.”
Decisions based on fear instead of solid science, Hickox said, are examples of discrimination.
“That is something we need to fight not only [in the United States] but have to combat every day all over the world,” she said. “I hope we are making strides — everything we have done so far, first in New Jersey and then in Maine, made a lot of leaders step back and take a look at what they are doing.”
Hickox said she is not going to sue LePage or any Maine officials and holds no ill will against the state where she returned on Oct. 27 following her three days under quarantine in New Jersey.
In the days following her arrival in Fort Kent with Wilbur, the normally quiet road in front of their Violette Settlement home filled with reporters, cameras and satellite trucks as media from all the major networks and several national publications descended on the town to record and cover every move the couple made for a week.
The Maine State Police provided a trooper in a squad car for the first few days to track her movements.
At one point a trooper on duty followed Hickox, Wilbur and dozens of members of the media as the couple took their bikes for a 6-mile ride along the Fort Kent Heritage Trail.
Once Maine Chief District Court Judge Charles LaVerdiere refused to allow state officials to confine Hickox to her home, the state police detail was removed and local law enforcement moved in to keep an eye on things.
“I tried very hard to pick up where the state left off,” Fort Kent Police Chief Tom Pelletier said Friday. “Their priority had been to make sure she stayed away from the public pending the judge’s decision. Ours was to keep her safe.”
There were never any direct overt threats made against Hickox or Wilbur, but several sites were created on social media calling for the couple to leave the area.
“There were a lot of mixed feelings in the area at the time,” Pelletier said. “But I can also show you a stack of emails sent to me from people from all over the country who supported [Hickox] and how we handled things locally.”
In addition to making sure things stayed calm around their home, Pelletier also ran errands for Hickox and Wilbur, including delivering groceries and flowers sent by supporters.
“Maine is a beautiful state,” Hickox said Thursday. “Even through the hard times and the negative comments, we had so much support from so many people who stood up for us when that might not have been a popular thing to do.”
Among her supporters in Fort Kent is Becky Lawn, owner of the Moose Shack II Restaurant, and the person responsible for what may go down as the most famous pizza delivery in history.
After going on national television during a press conference one evening during the height of the media frenzy in Fort Kent, Hickox mentioned the one thing she was looking forward to was a pizza from the Moose Shack.
The next day a Moose Shack employee ran a media gauntlet of reporters and cameras to deliver Hickox’s favorite pie — pepperoni, mushrooms and black olives — to the house.
“So many people told me to be careful about doing that,” Lawn said Friday. “But I really did not care.”
It did not take long for the Moose Shack’s fame to go national, as reporters came into the small eatery to get the dish on the now famous pizza.
“It was crazy, with reporters coming in and all wanting to know about the pizza,” Lawn said. “A week or so, after things calmed down, I got a call from someone at the New York Times and they told me, ‘You just made the cover of the Times.’”
Lawn said she also received numerous calls from around the country lauding her for the restaurant’s support of Hickox and wanting to pay for any future pizza deliveries.
Lawn ultimately ended up with several hundred dollars worth of gift certificates in Hickox’s name and said Hickox and Wilbur used them for their going away party before leaving Fort Kent.
“I wish it had worked out for us to stay,” Hickox said. “But that was not in the cards.”
Admitting those 21 days were not the easiest she has spent, Hickox did say it was worth it.
“I would like to hope it did make a difference,” she said. “If we don’t hold people accountable and stand up for our rights, those rights could be taken away.”
Hickox said that while she has no immediate plans to return to Africa, she does keep up with what is going on in the public health sector with regards to Ebola.
“I have kept in touch with friends and survivors [in Africa] and one of the most concerning things I am hearing is the survivors are being discriminated against,” she said. “I think about their struggles and I know those struggles are not over and we can never stop fighting that battle.”
At the same time, Hickox did say she would one day return to Sierra Leone.
“During the Ebola outbreak all the centers where people would go to dance were closed down,” she said. “I told my colleagues in Sierra Leone when they reopen I will be there to dance and celebrate with them.”
In the meantime, she will continue to work in the health care field in this country and said Maine is never far from her thoughts.
“You know, I was actually thinking about the Moose Shack the other day,” she said with a laugh. “I have not found a pizza place out here that good yet,”
And she and Wilbur still go for bicycle rides from time to time.
“We actually just got a tandem bike,” she said. “We ride that all around town.”