On July 26, I was having dinner with friends in San Antonio when an international call came in. I answered to hear the calm, quiet, tired voice of my friend Kent Brantly, who had phoned me eight days earlier to see whether I knew anyone who could go to Liberia and help at the ELWA Hospital in Monrovia for a few weeks. Kent and his colleagues were growing weary. He had left his general duties and was directing the Ebola isolation unit, overseeing the facility’s response to the worsening epidemic in West Africa. He was not asking me to send a doctor to help care for Ebola patients; he just needed someone who could take his place in the call rotation and provide a little relief for the other doctors.
He had sounded very tired during the earlier call, and I assumed this was a follow-up. But Kent’s tone was different, and the news he shared made my knees weak, forcing me to sit down. Kent was in quarantine with a fever. A blood test showed that he had contracted the Ebola virus.
The days that followed were surreal, as we waited for news about Kent’s condition (and that of his friend and co-worker, Nancy Writebol, whom I do not know). Kent’s life seemed to spin out of control, or at least his story did, quickly moving beyond his ability to manage it and his strength to tell it.
At this moment, Kent is living a very private and personal story of faith, commitment, illness and recovery. But TV pundits, bloggers, Facebook fans, people on the street and around the world, friends and colleagues, church members and former teachers (like me) — just about everyone — know the story, or at least we think we do. It’s been told, retold and incorrectly told countless times, in every possible medium. Kent has been venerated as a saint and vilified as a menace. He would, I am confident, be the first to say he is not a saint. I will be the strongest voice stating he is not a menace or an idiot.
Kent and his family spent many evenings in my home during the four years of his training in Fort Worth. He and his wife traveled with me to Haiti to provide humanitarian relief in remote villages. Kent and I spent long hours operating together in a busy obstetrical ward in Uganda. He is an exceptional young man, and his wife is a truly remarkable young woman. But they will readily admit that they are not unique. In Liberia, they worked alongside other doctors, nurses and missionaries who made similar sacrifices and took similar risks.
Kent found himself in the middle of the worst Ebola epidemic ever and, therefore, joined the long line of physicians throughout history who have chosen to care for patients with contagious, often deadly, diseases — pandemic influenza, plague, tuberculosis, malaria, cholera and now Ebola. Like Kent, some of these, quite tragically, became infected with the pathogen that was killing their patients.
Kent did not leave his family behind and head to Africa to treat Ebola; his family went with him, in October, to the relative safety and security of an established mission hospital in Liberia, where he went to work as a family doctor. Then, when Ebola came, he stayed, and his wife chose to stay with him. Fortunately, she and their children returned home for a wedding a few days before he got sick. Kent had been scheduled to follow. They were supposed to be staying in my home, sharing breakfast around the table where I am writing this.
Kent and I spoke on the phone again on the Monday the story seemed to take off around the world. He e-mailed me a message to read at a news conference at our hospital. He did not, as was widely reported, say he was “terrified.” That was my word, my emotion, projected impulsively onto Kent in response to a reporter’s question about how Kent sounded. I was terrified for him. He was lying alone in his bed, ill and getting worse, halfway around the world from his family, staring in the face of a horrifying death from hemorrhagic fever. Who wouldn’t be “scared” (the reporter’s word) or “terrified” (mine)? But Kent has never — at least not to me — used that word or expressed that emotion. It’s another way this story has spun out of control.
When Kent is well and has the strength, I am sure he and his wife will tell their story. Then we can all know exactly why they went to Liberia, why they stayed when Ebola turned their world upside down, how they felt as Kent’s condition deteriorated and how they have responded to becoming international celebrities, a status they never sought or wanted. There will be a time and a place to discuss their decisions; a time and a place to discuss the ethics of experimental serums and emergency evacuations and bringing home Americans infected with frightening viruses. Kent will, I believe, have a contribution to make to that debate.
Until then, perhaps we can all pause and allow them some space to live this tragedy. Allow them to be human — strong, committed, faithful, resilient young people, but somewhat fragile, nonetheless.
Kent’s story is powerful and moving, even more so because it is such a human story. Dorothy Day, the famous social activist, once said: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” I would ask the same for Dr. Kent Brantly. Don’t dismiss him as a saint. Don’t dismiss him as a menace or a fool. And, please, when you feel compelled to denounce the decision to bring him home to recover from this terrible disease, just ask yourself one simple question: “What would I want to be done if Kent were my son, or husband, or father or friend?”
David McRay is director of maternal-child health for the JPS Health Network in Fort Worth.