LEWISTON — For about a week last October, Maine was the center of news. 

Nurse Kaci Hickox had returned to her Fort Kent house after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. The state demanded she be quarantined at home for 21 days. She said the confinement was medically unnecessary and violated her rights.

Newspeople camped outside her home for days, covering every aspect of the story, from Hickox’s quarantine-breaking bike ride to the judge’s ruling in her favor.

In the middle of it all: Maine Public Radio.  

“We were getting calls from people around the country who wanted Patty (Wight) and Mal (Leary) and some of our reporters to explain what was going on,” Maine Public Radio Deputy News Director Susan Sharon told a crowd at the Lewiston Public Library on Thursday. “So we were fielding calls left and right.” 

Sharon and Wight, award-winning reporters for Maine Public Radio, spoke about their experience with the “Ebola nurse” controversy during the latest Great Falls Forum. Almost exactly one year after Hickox became international news, the pair recounted what it was like to be at the forefront of one of the biggest stories of the year. 

“You never knew what was going to happen next,” Wight said.

Sharon, Wight and other Maine Public Radio reporters covered the story almost from the beginning. Wight was one of the first reporters to speak with Fort Kent residents about their concerns over Hickox and the possibility she could be carrying Ebola, the deadly virus that had become an epidemic in other parts of the world. Wight was also one of the first reporters to approach Hickox’s home. 

She soon had company.

“The media went from that first day, just a few of us,” Wight said. “And that next day, I was turning down her road and there was this long stream of cars.”

On Thursday, Sharon and Wight told a forum crowd of about 30 people that covering the weeklong saga was both intense and fun, with the seriousness of the story — residents’ fears, the state’s quarantine demand, Hickox’s assertion that her rights were being violated — interspersed with periods that were much lighter.

“Kaci goes by with her boyfriend on her bike,” Wight said. “There had been a couple of state police troopers parked outside her house to monitor her movements; they follow Kaci. Then all these other reporters’ cars start following. So I turn around, and it’s the world’s slowest car chase.”

By the time the judge rejected the state’s quarantine, almost a week had passed and Maine Public Radio reporters covered it all.

“This is illustrative of how the media can — I’ll say ‘can’ — arise to the highest and best use,” Sharon said, noting that “the hysteria did seem to be quelled after Kaci’s leadership” on Ebola.  

A year later, Sharon and Wight said they’ve started talking about revisiting the story. Hickox is living in Oregon now, Sharon said, but local follow-ups remain, including a look at the kind of response a similar case would get today.

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