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Medical missionary tells leaders of Ebola fight

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — A medical missionary who fought the Ebola outbreak in Liberia only to contract the deadly disease himself shared his story with Christian leaders here April 20.

At the Leader’s Dinner preceding the 50th annual National Prayer Breakfast, Dr. Kent Brantly told of how he arrived in Liberia in October 2013 to work as a medical missionary for Samaritan’s Purse’s ELWA hospital in Monrovia.

He arrived on a rainy Wednesday evening and after only one day of orientation where he was shown how the hospital charting is done, his supervisor sent him to the emergency ward to look after a 12-year-old boy with type 1 diabetes, which meant the boy’s body did not make insulin. He had run out several days earlier and not told anyone. His blood sugar was “off the charts,” Brantly said.

The doctor said he felt relieved because instead of some strange tropical disease he was confronted with something familiar that he had treated before. But the boy was much sicker than those he encountered in the U.S., and the IV poles did not have pumps to ensure the right dosage. They had to count the drips per minute to ensure he got the right amount of insulin but not too much.

“Despite our best efforts to save Michael’s life and despite our prayers, after two or three days, Michael died,” he said. “So began my life as a medical missionary.”

Liberia had been wracked by 20 years of civil war and conflict, he said. “Death was very real. It was no respecter of persons, whether young or old.”

“If I had gone to Liberia simply to do good and to save lives I would have thrown in the towel,” he said. Instead he went “to bring light to darkness, to bring hope, to bring compassion to people in great need.”

“It’s this same calling that led us to stay in the face of Ebola,” he said. “We did not allow fear to trump our reason for being there.”

They learned of the Ebola outbreak in March 2014. They held a two- to three-hour training session on the disease on how to care for people and deal with dead bodies to as to avoid contagion. They converted their chapel into a five-bed isolation unit.

Then they heard of a family in the city that had lost two or three family members and another two or three were sick. The family wanted to bring the sick to the clinic. Brantly and another physician and a team of Liberian nurses took on the care of Ebola patients as the outbreak worsened.

Soon Ebola treatment was consolidated with the large government hospital and preparations were being made that July to open a larger unit. Brantly took his wife and their two children to the airport to fly home for some family events in Texas. He expected to follow them a short time later. But three days after they left he came down with a fever and his condition continued to worsen. “On Saturday the 26th of July, I received news my test was positive for the Ebola virus,” he said.

He watched his condition deteriorate and his fever worsen. He developed massive diarrhea and vomited blood. His eyes were blood-shot red and a rash over his entire body was a sign of internal bleeding.

There had been one survivor, a 14-year-old boy. “George would call me to see how I was doing,” Brantly said. He told the boy: “You know, now I have it.”

His family wanted to help and they allowed the boy to donate a unit of blood, in case antibodies in it could help Brantly survive.

“When I lay dying in my house in Liberia, I didn’t have to ask why,” said Brantly. “When the going gets tough, the tough get back to their calling.”

“I contracted Ebola because I was doing what God called me to do,” he said. That left him “with a tremendous amount of peace.”

On August 1, 2014, he was flown to Atlanta, Georgia, to Emory hospital where he was treated with an experimental drug, ZMapp. Three weeks later he was discharged. He recalled speaking to a press conference where it seemed he was addressing 100 people, when in reality about 18 million were watching on television. “I said God saved my life. I stand by that statement. God saved my life.”

“Some took issue” with that statement, he said, arguing it was “arrogant for a guy who received an experimental drug,” who was airlifted out on a special plane and who received the best of care in America. But in the timing, the way circumstances lined up, Brantly said he saw signs of “supernatural intervention.”

In Liberia, he couldn’t breathe and the hospital had no machines that would breathe for him. “They were not going to do mouth to mouth on a guy with Ebola.”

But someone had flown in the experimental drug, a small amount since “they had made just enough for the monkey trial.” That drug ended up at his bedside when 10,788 people had died.

Meanwhile, the team in Emory had been preparing for 12 years to take care of an outbreak like this, even though they had never encountered it before. “I see the hand of God at work and I have to give him credit.”

“Still some people ask, ‘Why you, when so many others died?’ ” he said. Was his faith special? He said he asks himself sometimes why he survived. “I will never know why,” he said. He said he can only “choose to listen to the call of love on my life and to seek to be faithful.”

“We all have a calling,” Brantly said. That calling involves Jesus’ command to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves.

“You can’t do one without the other,” he said, adding “living this out looks like compassion.”

Compassion doesn’t mean feeling sorry for people, but being willing to suffer with them, and “give up your right to comfort,” he said.

“What is your calling?” he asked. Who is the neighbour in your life in desperate need of compassion?”

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