A few months before news that Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan had been diagnosed with Ebola while visiting family in Dallas sent shockwaves through the metroplex, Dr. Kent Brantly was in a small Liberian hospital trying to combat a legitimate Ebola outbreak with meager resources.
When Brantly eventually caught the disease himself in July 2014, Franklin Graham, son of Texas evangelist Billy Graham and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse—the missionary foundation supporting Brantly’s work in West Africa—was sure of one thing: they would find a way to bring Brantly to the United States.
On August 2, 2014, Brantly arrived at Emory University Hospital, one week after his official diagnosis, to be treated for Ebola. Brantly received an experimental drug called ZMapp, and nearly three weeks later made a full recovery, cured of a potentially deadly disease.
Now, Brantly, who attended Abilene Christian University, has returned to practicing medicine at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth. A new documentary, Facing Darkness, tells Brantly’s story. He sat down with Texas Monthly at his family’s church in Fort Worth to discuss his improbable recovery and why treating “our neighbor with compassion…even the ones with whom we have political or religious disagreements” is the first step to battling deadly epidemics.
Texas Monthly: There’s a lot of inherent risk that comes with trying to treat a deadly virus in a foreign country. What ultimately led to your decision to go to Liberia?
KB: So the truth is we did not go to Liberia to treat Ebola. Amber, my wife, and I had been preparing for a decade to make that kind of move to go live our lives in quiet anonymous service. To use my skills as a physician to serve people in the greatest of need. As we were settling into our home and work there the Ebola outbreak came to our doorstep. We chose to stay and engage in that fight because it seemed to just almost magnify our purpose of being there.
TM: Being in a country when an epidemic strikes is some people’s worst nightmare. What was it like being there and witnessing it?
KB: We heard about the Ebola outbreak. One of my co-workers was reading the BBC website and saw a headline about an Ebola outbreak in Guinea and there had been some cases in northern Liberia right across the border. We started talking about “What do we need to do to prepare in the event that this outbreak comes to our area?” We said, “If this thing comes to our area and we are not prepared, our friends and co-workers are going to die.”
By the time that second wave of Ebola came through Liberia in early June we were in a very different place than we were at the end of March [in terms of preparation].
When Ebola came back, this time it came with a phone call from the Ministry of Health that said, “We have a couple of patients at one of our other hospitals and we’re bringing them to you because you have the only isolation unit in all of Monrovia.” So Ebola showed up at our hospital in an ambulance.
TM: Your book, Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us into the Heart of the Ebola Crisis opens with “Kent, bud, we got your test results and I’m really sorry to tell you it’s positive for Ebola.” I don’t think there’s a right way to tell someone a diagnosis like that, but that sounds very casual. Do you remember the initial thoughts going through your head, as what you might have dreaded had become a reality?
KB: That first case came to our hospital on June 11. I woke up feeling bad on July 23. We had about six or seven weeks of this rapidly increasing, worsening outbreak. In our small little, five-bed isolation unit we had had about forty patients come through our unit. Of those forty I think sixteen of them had Ebola. Of those sixteen all but one of them had died.
I woke up sick on July 23. My wife and kids had just left on July 20. They had gone back to Texas for a family wedding. We had been taking all the right precautions using all the right protocols. I didn’t think I had Ebola, but I knew it wasn’t impossible. That diagnosis happened on July 26, so I had been sick for three-and-a-half days. The evidence was mounting during those three days.
TM: What was the course of action?
KB: That was my response. I said, “What’s our plan and how am I going to tell my wife?” There really wasn’t anything else to do.
TM: So when was it established that you would leave Liberia?
KB: When Franklin Graham found out that I had Ebola, I think it was his goal to bring me home. But still, there’s no medication for Ebola.
TM: Do you think there was a specific factor that you point to as being most essential to you surviving the disease?
KB: I will never discount the role that prayer played in my recovery. I think there were literally millions of people around the world praying for me. At least hundreds of thousands. But in a conversation like this, how do I quantify something like that? I don’t know. I can’t
Other things that I think were big factors in my recovery: one was the early care that my co-workers and friends were providing me. The ZMapp, the experimental drug that I received. I had a pretty dramatic response to that first dose. As a doctor I will tell you that a single case of anything is not scientific evidence. Scientific evidence is built on randomized controlled trials, large studies, large observations. You can’t draw any scientific conclusion from a single case. So my case doesn’t prove that ZMapp saved my life, but I think it was effective.
Two other things that I think made a huge difference were when I got to Emory they could do laboratory tests. That allowed them to tailor the treatment, especially of my electrolytes, in the right way. And then the ability to have a nurse at my bedside 24 hours a day at Emory made a big difference to me mentally and emotionally
TM: How much time have you spent in Liberia since you left after your diagnosis?
KB: A week. We went back for one week in 2015.
TM: What was that like?
KB: It was very emotional. That was a really unique chapter in the life of my family so getting to go back kind of allowed some closure. It was a chance to go back and say goodbye to the people that we had to leave so abruptly, and most importantly it was a chance to say thank you to people who took care of me in Liberia.
TM: Ebola sort of exists like a boogey man disease in Western culture—something that people fear in the abstract as a deadly disease that’s capable of creating this epidemic. Knowing and seeing the symptoms first hand as a doctor, did that make the diagnosis all the more terrifying or were you able to look at it through a practical mindset?
KB: Both. I think there is a lot of irrational fear of things like Ebola. Not just Ebola but other things that are the unknown, that we get this boogey man irrational fear of. But Ebola really is a scary disease, both as healthcare provider taking care of someone with the disease and as a patient.
Seeing it up close helped dispel some of that sci-fi sort of fear of melting organs and things like that. But putting on that [personal protective equipment] and walking into an Ebola treatment unit is a very sobering experience. One day I looked in the mirror and my eyes were bloodshot red and I had seen that in patients. I had not seen anyone [during the outbreak] whose eyes got red like that who didn’t end up having Ebola and didn’t end up dying from it.
TM: The presence of Ebola in the United States caused a big panic. As someone uniquely familiar with outbreaks, did you feel the United States was properly prepared to handle diseases like Ebola at that time?
KB: I think, like you talked about with the boogey man, a lot of the fear of Ebola in this country was irrational. It’s understandable, but it was irrational.
In general, I think what we saw [in 2014] was that our health care system here and our societal structures that are in place with public health, it makes it a totally different ballgame than dealing with Ebola in a place like West Africa that has such a broken healthcare system.
TM: It’s been a few years since then and most of the public concern has vanished. Do you think this is a out of sight, out of mind issue? And is it naïve to assume that a place like America doesn’t have to worry about an outbreak of something like Ebola?
KB: It is naïve to think that America is unaffected by things like an outbreak of Ebola [abroad].
In general, I think the public is not panicked by something like Ebola now. I agree with that. But something that I see ramifications of everyday in my work is that I think the medical system in America is much more actively aware of patient’s travel histories. Because we’ve seen, to back to the other part of that question, we’ve seen that we live in an interconnected world, and that something like an Ebola outbreak on the other side of the world can show up at our doorstep over night. So I don’t think that America is at-risk for something like Ebola—we have flu epidemics—but something exotic like Ebola, I don’t think we’re at risk for an outbreak of that, but a guy from Liberia can show up at your ER in Dallas and have Ebola.
So the proper response to that truth is that we need to be engaged in places around the world where there are disasters happening. Where there are outbreaks of things like Ebola or Zika or MERS, because those things are going to end up affecting us in some way so we need to be engaged in solving those problems or helping those problems where they’re happening, not only because it will protect us here at home but because it’s the right thing to do.
TM: Are you optimistic of the possibility of containing or even ending the Ebola epidemic in places like Liberia or other African countries?
KB: Yeah, I think with all the attention that was given to Ebola in the wake of the outbreak in 2014 there was a lot of research put into Ebola treatment and prevention. There were multiple entities trying to develop vaccines. A couple of those vaccines have been proven to be effective. I think that bodes really well for preventing an outbreak on the scale of the one we saw in 2014 and maybe even eliminating Ebola, erasing Ebola from the earth. We’ve done it with smallpox. I think it’s reasonable to think we can do it with other infectious diseases as well. The problem is we don’t pay attention to them until we’ve had an outbreak with 11,000 people killed and some Westerners involved.
TM: It didn’t take you long to return to practicing medicine. What kind of work are you doing at John Peter Smith hospital in Fort Worth?
KB: I’m a family doctor. I did my residency in family medicine at JPS. That means I take care of people of all demographics with all kinds of problems. I do primary care. My favorite part of my job is delivering babies.
TM: What can someone, a reader for example, do to help combat the Ebola crisis worldwide?
KB: The way to fix Ebola is not for the average Texas Monthly reader to bone up on tropical diseases. It is to develop habits of choosing to not let fear dominate you. And to not be afraid of “the other” just because it is different, whether that’s a refugee from the Middle East who had to leave their home because they were caught in the middle of a war or whether that is a person who moves from out of state and has a different accent and a different way of doing things. When we treat the people around us with more compassion we will be in a place to respond to something like Ebola out of compassion.
TM: What can people expect from Facing Darkness?
KB: Aside from it being an amazing story of drama and miracles and adventure it addresses some really serious themes of choosing compassion over fear and what does it look like or mean to live a life of faith or to have faith. One of the messages that comes across in the documentary is that faith does not necessarily make you safe. And that seems counterintuitive to a lot of American religious people. But I think the documentary helps pose that idea in way that people can really grapple with.
Facing Darkness opened in select theaters March 30. It has an encore presentation on April 10.