When Kent Brantly arrived in the United States on Saturday, the American doctor who contracted Ebola while treating virus-stricken patients in Liberia did something unexpected: He stepped out of an ambulance and walked into the hospital.
Three days earlier, Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian aid organization Brantly was serving in Liberia, described the doctor’s condition as “grave” and reported he had taken a turn for the worse. The Ebola virus has a high fatality rate, killing at least 887 people in the recent outbreak in West Africa.
Brantly’s survival looked precarious.
But by Saturday, as news helicopters captured his arrival at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital, the doctor emerged from an ambulance in a bulky contamination suit, and walked slowly toward the building.
Though Brantly’s condition is still serious, and he remains in a high-tech isolation ward while he recovers, his remarkable comeback likely hinged on an experimental serum physicians administered while he was still in Liberia. (Samaritan’s Purse confirmed Brantly took the drug.)
CNN cited an unnamed source as saying the National Institute of Health offered the highly experimental serum, which reportedly hadn’t been tested on humans before.
Doctors also gave the drug to Nancy Writebol, an American working for the mission group SIM, formerly known as Serving in Mission, who also contracted the virus. Writebol’s family said her condition was still serious, but improving. SIM said the same medical evacuation plane that transported Brantly to Atlanta was on its way back to Liberia to pick up Writebol. She’s expected to arrive at Emory on Tuesday.
On Sunday, Brantly’s wife Amber said she had visited her husband in the hospital’s isolation ward. Visitors to the sealed-off infectious disease unit see and communicate with patients through barriers. In a statement, Amber Brantly said her husband was in good spirits: “He thanked everyone for their prayers and asked for continued prayer for Nancy Writebol’s safe return and full recovery.”
Ken Isaacs of Samaritan’s Purse said Brantly remained unwavering in his faith as he faced the deadly disease: “It’s an absolutely incredible story of commitment to Christ, and wanting to glorify God.”
The aid group is working to evacuate other Samaritan’s Purse workers away from Liberia while the outbreak remains a threat. It’s a complicated process, and the group’s president, Franklin Graham, wrote a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asking for clearer protocols for bringing home workers leaving a country where the Ebola virus has taken hold.
“In the absence of guidelines from the CDC, Samaritan’s Purse has adopted what we believe to be a conservative policy,” he wrote on July 28. “Since the incubation period for Ebola is 21 days, we will require our personnel to remain on the African continent for 21 days after being in an area with possible exposure to Ebola.” Graham said the group would monitor the workers’ health, and “only allow their return to the United States if they are symptom-free at the end of that time.”
Meanwhile, some 400 national staff remain on-site in Liberia, working for Samaritan’s Purse. Isaacs said he didn’t know of any confirmed cases of Ebola among indigenous workers. He also said the morale among the local staff was “very high,” and they wanted to continue public education campaigns to help Liberians understand how to prevent contracting or spreading the disease.
Such efforts may be key to containing the deadly virus in a region where misinformation can lead to deadly errors. Liberian officials announced they would cremate the bodies of any patients who died from Ebola to prevent the spread of the disease through decaying corpses.
Since handling dead bodies is a common practice in Liberian funerals, it’s critical to educate people on the dangers of touching a corpse. Samaritan’s Purse plans to work with local pastors in its network of churches to help with education efforts about preventing the spread of the virus, and spotting its symptoms early.
Meanwhile, concerns persist about the virus spreading to other areas of West Africa. On Monday, Nigerian officials announced they had confirmed a second case of Ebola. The first case came from an Ebola-stricken doctor who traveled from Liberia to Nigeria before he knew he was infected. The doctor later died.