Doctor who survived Ebola: Faith and science saved me

When Kent Brantly, in isolation at his home near the hospital where he was working in Liberia, learned that he had Ebola, he called his wife. She had returned with their children to the United States before he even started feeling ill, and now he had terrible news.

“The test results came back,” he told her. “It’s positive.”

And thus began his dramatic battle with the disease, a victorious fight powered by his deep Christian faith and world-class medical care that ultimately brought him to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

Brantly, back in town for the weekend’s AJC Decatur Book Festival with his wife, Amber, talked with me about their experience.

To remind you of his saga, a little over a year ago the United States and much of the world was in the grip of panic over the spread of Ebola, which had overwhelmed parts of west Africa. Some Americans were adamant the government should keep anyone who might have the disease from entering the country. On Aug. 2, Brantly flew to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, got into an ambulance and arrived at Emory. On live television, he walked into the hospital. He was the first person with Ebola to come into the country.

In a phone call last week to prepare for the book festival session, Brantly explained why the couple wrote “Called for Life: How Loving our Neighbor Led Us into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic.”

“Our story has been told in snippets,” he said. “We wanted to share our whole story, so that God could use our story.”

That motivation has produced an inspiring and frank account of their experience. In a world where it’s common for people to try and turn their unexpected celebrity into lasting fame, the Brantlys simply write about what happened and what they were feeling. The medical missionaries even share favorite prayers and Bible verses that brought them solace and inspiration at the time.

Kent Brantly, candid and ever the doctor, matter-of-factly describes his bowel movements and the clues they offered as he tracked the progression of his illness — not exactly the typical fodder for a celebrity’s book.

And so the book hasn’t been promoted as containing blockbuster revelations, but it takes the reader deep into the Brantlys’ world at the time.

One of the more compelling anecdotes involves the efforts to evacuate Kent from Liberia. There are established procedures for evacuating American citizens who are working in faraway places and who become ill. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have something called the Airborne Biomedical Containment Systems for just such a situation. European hospitals are set up to take on such patients.

But Kent learned that countries in Europe and North Africa refused to allow an airplane with an Ebola patient on board to enter their airspace.

On the same day Kent also got word that some health care workers in Liberia had been attacked, as fear and panic about the spread of the disease took hold.

Meanwhile, Amber, who is a nurse, took the delay in Kent’s evacuation hard. She was with family, watching as the panic and misunderstanding about the disease also took hold in the United States. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself, or face a potential media onslaught.

She and Kent were using the computer for video phone calls, and she saw his condition was bad.

She had a ritual when they talked.

“I took a screenshot of him,” she wrote. “Just in case that turned out to be the last time I saw him alive.”

Her faith helped her.

“People all over the world, literally, were praying for him, and he needed those prayers.”

They were answered when word came he’d be going to Atlanta aboard a Gulfstream III. His reaction: “This is pretty cool. I’m getting evacuated out of Liberia on this top-secret jet!”

Amber flew to Atlanta and checked into a hotel under a pseudonym, because of the controversy Kent’s arrival had caused. At the hospital, she could only see Kent through a window and talk to him on an intercom.

Kent would recover after two-and-a-half weeks at Emory, and when he hugged the people who treated him before the cameras, he created history.

But before that, as Kent’s recovery seemed sure, but not absolutely confirmed by tests, his caregiver arranged an important moment.

Kent was given a glove to put on, and a staff member cracked the door to his room. He and Amber held hands, the first time they were able to touch each other in nearly a month.

Kent remains thankful to the folks at Emory.

“We had professionals at Emory who’d been preparing for 12 years,” he told me. “I was thankful for the people who put their lives on the line to care for me.”

Kent has spent time reflecting on his experience, as he acknowledges how a combination of his faith in God and medical science saved him. He’s not inclined to make a choice between which was more important.

He said he has gotten comfortable with the idea that some questions may not have answers, and that just pondering them will help him, Amber and others.

For example, why did he survive when thousands in Africa died, including virtually every patient he treated there?

“I don’t know how God works, but I know how the laws of science work,” he said. “God uses people all the time. He’s the author of the laws of nature.”

He doesn’t see a conflict between faith and science.

“I’m wrestling with those questions,” he said. “I’m learning to be OK with those questions and still searching.”