As the second deadliest Ebola outbreak in history rages in Congo, a doctor who survived the deadly disease five years ago worries that people aren’t paying enough attention.
“We need the United States government and the international community to step up in a bigger way to come to the assistance of the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo to help bring an end to that outbreak before more lives are lost,” Dr. Kent Brantly told reporters Friday.
Brantly, a missionary and doctor who was infected with the virus in 2014 while caring for patients in Liberia, was the first Ebola patient brought to the United States for treatment at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
Brantly’s arrival on Aug. 2, 2014, received intense news coverage, with cameras capturing him walking from an ambulance into the hospital in a white protective suit. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, he recalled talking to his wife right after that.
“She said ‘Kent, we watched you walk into the hospital,'” he said. “I said, you were watching me? And she said, ‘Oh, Kent, the whole world was watching you.’ I had no clue. No idea that people were paying attention.”
Brantly, who worked for the North Carolina-based aid organization Samaritan’s Purse, also remembered the moment in Africa when he received the bleak diagnosis.
“We had had around 20 patients with Ebola in our treatment unit and we only had one survivor,” he said. “So when my friend Nancy Writebol and I were both diagnosed with Ebola, I thought the chances of both of us surviving were nearly zero.”
Writebol, a missionary who was the second Ebola patient brought to Emory, worked alongside Brantly at the Elwa Mission Hospital near the Liberian capital of Monrovia. She recalled a knot forming in her stomach when she and Brantly were diagnosed.
“By the time I was evacuated out, I was probably at my lowest,” Writebol recently told the AP. “I think at times they wondered if I’d even survive the flight.”
Emory entered uncharted territory when Brantly and Writebol arrived within days of each other, said Dr. Colleen Kraft, one of the lead doctors on the team that treated them.
“It was like walking on the moon a little bit because no one had ever cared for Ebola, so we didn’t know what to expect,” she told the AP.
But the Emory team had been preparing their unit for controlling serious communicable diseases for 10 years and was ready for the challenge.
Dr. Ian Crozier arrived about a month later, on Sept. 9, 2014, after contracting the disease in Sierra Leone. The fourth Amber Vinson, one of two nurses who became infected in Dallas while treating the first patient to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. She arrived at Emory on Oct. 15, 2014.
On Friday, the fifth anniversary of Brantly’s arrival at Emory, he and Writebol reunited in Atlanta with the medical team that treated them. Crozier had planned to join them as well but ended up having to remain in Congo, where Ebola is spreading .
Brantly hugged many of the caregivers and security personnel who greeted him warmly. His children, 10-year-old Ruby and 8-year-old Stephen, strode with him down the halls at Emory toward the room where he spent most of his time recovering.
The 2014-16 outbreak, the deadliest on record, killed more than 11,300 people before West Africa was declared Ebola-free in 2016.
The current outbreak in Congo has killed more than 1,800 people, nearly a third of them children. It has already become the second-deadliest outbreak in history even though a highly effective experimental vaccine is now available.
Brantly and Writebol said they hope their stories can bring attention to the current crisis. Writebol continues to work with Ebola survivors in Africa, and Brantly said his family plans to move to Zambia, in southern Africa, later this year to continue the kind of work he was doing in Liberia.
Writebol said “it was amazing to us, having experienced Ebola ourselves, how the walls came down between us and Liberians.”