Dr. Kent Brantly: Ebola, Faith and Family

Dr. Kent Brantly in protective medical gear
Joni Byker/Samaritan's Purse

Note: For a personal account of the high price Liberian families paid during the Ebola crisis, read the story written by Bob Waliszewski on PluggedIn.com.   

The world watched as the Ebola virus spread rapidly through several countries in West Africa during the spring of 2014. The tragedy hit home for Americans when it was announced that a missionary doctor in Liberia had been infected — and he was coming back to the U.S. for treatment.

Many Americans remember following the media updates when the first Ebola patient on U.S. soil stepped out of an ambulance and walked into Emory University Hospital in Atlanta in August 2014. That individual clothed in full hazardous material gear was Dr. Kent Brantly. Along with several other medical professionals who treated people with Ebola, he would ultimately become Time magazine's Person of the Year 2014 when he was honored with the others as a group aptly titled "the Ebola fighters."

Focus on the Family caught up with Kent and his wife, Amber, to learn more of his backstory and to find out how his experience contracting the Ebola virus has affected his family. His two children, Ruby and Stephen, were ages 5 and 3, respectively, at the time of the outbreak.

The adventure begins

In May 2008, after pitching two separate tents in the great outdoors, Kent Brantly and his young girlfriend, Amber Carroll, hiked to the base of Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite National Park where Kent got down on one knee and popped the question. Ten days later they were married — and their adventure began.

After preparing for careers in medicine and having two children, the couple sensed it was time to fulfill God's calling to become missionaries. Kent and Amber decided to use their professional skills and signed up for a two-year term with World Medical Mission (WMM), the medical arm of Samaritan's Purse. Then they moved to Liberia's capital city, Monrovia.

When Kent and Amber moved with their children in October of 2013, Ebola wasn't even on the radar in Liberia. The disease had first been discovered in 1976, but to date the cases had been contained. Still, doctors understood that this dreaded virus spread easily through mere contact with bodily fluids such as blood, perspiration and vomit. What they didn't know was that in March 2014 when they got word that Ebola was in Guinea and had spread to Liberia, it would take many thousands of lives before once again being contained.

It was amid this change of circumstances that Kent found himself serving with WMM in Liberia. By June he was treating his first Ebola patient, and by July the number of the sick and dying had steadily increased. Kent was taking every precaution to protect himself and his young family. As it would turn out, prior arrangements for Amber and the kids to go back to the U.S. to be with family proved to be a blessing for all of them. His wife and children had flown out on Sunday, July 20, and on Wednesday, July 23, Kent awoke knowing he just didn't feel right. So the testing began. 

Kent and Amber share the details of their story in a book titled Called for Life. Kent writes about getting the news: "Kent, bud. We got your test result. And I'm really sorry to tell you that it is positive for Ebola." He had received this horrific news from a friend dressed in a hazmat suit speaking to him through a window into Kent and Amber's home in Monrovia. Kent recounts asking, "OK, so what is next? What's the plan?" And then he wondered how he would tell Amber about his diagnosis.

In hindsight, it's easy to wonder if an Ebola diagnosis was really a complete surprise to the Brantlys. Had they really considered the risks involved in moving with their young children to Africa? When Focus posed these questions to Kent and Amber, they were quick to clarify that as with any international move, apprehension about health and well-being was a legitimate concern. They understood that malaria, along with a few other viruses, were prevalent in West Africa. As Kent wrote in his book, when he and Amber discussed the possibility of contracting the Ebola virus, they had bigger concerns about shark attacks. Amber added, "We didn't believe that because we were there as medical missionaries we would automatically be divinely protected from getting Ebola ... [but] we were not scared."

Faith no matter what 

At the beginning of the 2014 Ebola epidemic, 90 percent of all cases led to horrific deaths for the Liberians who had contracted the disease (according to stats provided in a pamphlet published by Samaritan's Purse). And because people often hug and touch in Liberian culture, the virus spread quickly. Still, the Samaritan's Purse doctors had done their research. They knew what they needed to do to protect themselves and their loved ones as they helped the people of Liberia, and Kent confirmed that their medical procedures were meticulous. Covered from head to toe in protective gear, the doctors worked around the clock dripping sweat as they worked in their many layers in triple-digit heat. Yet despite the emphasis on personal safety, Kent made news all over the world when he became the first American doctor to contract the disease. Kent admits to being unsure exactly how he contracted Ebola. Regardless, he was ill and all Amber could do was pray.

"Choosing to have compassion means opening yourself up to take on hurt that belongs to someone else — you choose to enter into that person's pain and share the burden," writes Kent in his book. It is because of that passionate purpose that Kent and Amber found themselves in the most difficult trial they had ever faced. Kent had the disease, and they all realized he was probably going to die. But when asked about his faith in this time of crisis, Kent answered, "I kept my faith in God. … It didn't seem right to stop trusting because circumstances had taken such a turn." He continued, "I keep going back to the lesson that God will give [me] everything I need — even in my own death."

About a week later and knowing he was deathly ill, Kent found himself stepping foot in America — home at last. It was still a long journey from the ambulance to the front doors of Atlanta’s hospital, but Kent held on to hope. With the help of some of the best medicine and doctors in the world, Kent ultimately left the hospital healthy and reunited with his wife and children. His recovery was a long journey, and once out of the hospital, it still took him four months to return to 100 percent health. Kent recalls, “So many people had been praying for me. … To see me walking when they anticipated that I was on death’s doorstep served as a live picture of answered prayer.” And leading the way in prayer was his wife.

Kent acknowledges that his experience has changed him. He says, "I don't relive [Ebola] every day. But on my better days, I do remember. And I remember how fleeting life is."

Life after Ebola 

Interestingly, Kent believes that contracting Ebola was actually a blessing in his relationship with Amber. When asked about his marriage, Kent replied, "Quite honestly, our experience is that [going through Ebola] was a marriage-strengthening exercise. We were unified in a cause bigger than ourselves." That's not to say that weathering this life-threatening disease was easy. But when pressed, Kent talks about how the family's most recent transitions may have been the bigger challenges. He clarifies, "The aftermath has been stressful — [facing] circumstances we never expected." Kent explained that these "transitions" and "circumstances" include the more common challenges associated with moving back to the U.S., settling the kids in a new school, adjusting to a new job and establishing their home in a new town.

So just how do the Brantlys handle the everyday kind of trials we all face? Kent doesn't hesitate: "We talk about [these issues] all the time, and pray and seek wise counsel." Yet he is quick to add, "[These trials] have been a strengthening experience, and like Ebola, it's bigger than ourselves. I feel our marriage is stronger than ever before!" Although that statement may seem trite to some, Kent and Amber go back to their strong belief that they were called to do what they were doing, recognizing that trials can strengthen personal faith, which in turn can strengthen a marriage. 

The Brantlys aren’t sure if they’ll ever return to Liberia. Kent and Amber do not know what changes may be ahead for them, but they confidently write in their book: "One thing has not changed: our desire to live faithful to God's calling. Our calling is to be faithful wherever we are, to be good stewards of opportunities, to be responsible with what we have been given, to try to do good, and to serve those whose paths we cross." And that commitment will undoubtedly serve them well in their career choices and in their marriage and family life.

Kelsey Poole is a freelance writer who went to Liberia in August 2016 to learn more about the Ebola crisis and its effects on the Liberian people and the Samaritan's Purse staff.
© 2017 Kelsey Poole. Originally published on FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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