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Missionaries who beat Ebola speak out as another doctor is diagnosed

Nancy and David Writebol SIM USA

Missionaries who beat Ebola speak out as another doctor is diagnosed

North Carolina-based missions group SIM identified a third American diagnosed with Ebola in Liberia, even as survivors Nancy Writebol and Kent Brantly began to tell their stories.

During a Wednesday morning news conference, SIM USA President Bruce Johnson told reporters in Charlotte, N.C., the latest victim is 51-year-old Dr. Rick Sacra. Once SIM’s Liberia director and the ELWA hospital medical director, Sacra now heads a residency program training new Liberian doctors in family medicine.

He volunteered to return to Liberia from his Boston, Mass., home when his colleagues—Brantly and Writebol—fell ill while serving at ELWA. Sacra was delivering babies in a supposedly Ebola-free general hospital and obstetrics unit when he fell ill.

Johnson told reporters they do not know how Sacra was exposed to the virus, because he followed protective protocols even in the Ebola-free portion of the hospital. Ebola is transmitted through contact with a sick person’s bodily fluids. While they’re exploring all options, Johnson said, they are not planning just yet to evacuate Sacra to the United States.

Sacra is in good spirits, and talking on his cell phone with his wife, Debbie, who is in the United States. He and his wife knew the risks when he returned to the country.

“It does not dampen our resolve and our commitment to serve the people of Liberia and to attack this Ebola epidemic,” Johnson said. “Our faith compels us.”

Johnson and Will Elphick, SIM’s Liberia director, described one of ELWA’s Ebola units as a converted kitchen and laundry area that is “over capacity.” But they painted a much brighter picture than Doctors Without Borders President Joanne Liu did on Tuesday. More than 1,500 hundred people have died in the outbreak, and Liu told a United Nations panel her overwhelmed Ebola centers have become units where people go to die alone with little more than palliative care.

Doctors Without Borders helps run one of the isolation units on the ELWA campus, which has at least 150 Ebola beds in total. But Johnson proudly reported that even as Sacra tested positive Monday, they discharged 12 people who had recovered. Sacra himself, in his last Facebook post before his illness, praised God for eight recoveries on Wednesday and Thursday.

That was some heartening news, Johnson said, to add to the first public celebration of Nancy Writebol’s recovery. Writebol, 59, was privately discharged from Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital on Aug. 19 and had not spoken to the media until Wednesday.

There were many days when she thought she would not survive, especially the day she was evacuated from Liberia, half-delirious and loaded onto the plane via a baggage conveyor belt, she told reporters. What she does remember, though, is her faith.

“The Lord came near and said, ‘Am I enough?’” she recalled. “And my response was, ‘Yes, Lord, you are enough.’”

Doctors originally thought she had malaria but tested her for Ebola anyway. When her husband came home to her bed and told her she and Brantly had Ebola, he stepped forward to embrace her. Although her heart sank, she said, she had to put her hands up and stop him.

But Wednesday as the couple addressed the media for half an hour, a beaming David Writebol told reporters that they are humbled God has “chosen us” to tell a story of God’s grace in Ebola. “I am so very thankful that this beautiful woman is still with me,” he said, drawing shy smiles from his wife.

“Really, this is not our story,” Nancy Writebol said. “It is God’s story. God is writing this.”

The Writebols and Brantly expressed continued concern for the Ebola crisis, gratified their experiences could highlight the situation and encourage others to meet the growing shortage of aid and aid workers. Brantly issued a short statement Aug. 21 upon his release from Emory University Hospital. He and his wife spoke to NBC on Tuesday in their first interview about their experience.

Brantly said he is still weak, but recovering strength daily. There were times he thought he would die, shaking violently, nearly unable to breath, and knowing doctors in Liberia had no equipment to breath for him. Brantly, his wife Amber, and their two children are staying in Asheville, N.C., where he can recover in private. He said they are thinking about Sacra as he wages his own battle with the disease.

“I was notified about [Sacra] this morning,” Brantly said Tuesday. “I spent a good long while tearful, in prayer.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Andrew Branch Andrew is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.

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