In the spring of 2014, a case of Ebola popped up in West Africa. By the fall, the virus spread into one of the largest Ebola epidemics in history, leaving more than 11,000 people dead in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Dr. Kent Brantly, who was working in Liberia with Samaritan’s Purse at the time, was one of the first Americans to contract Ebola. Brantly returned to the U.S. for treatment, and after surviving the virus, he spoke with President Barack Obama and the Senate about the crisis and publicly thanked God for his survival. He was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year along with other doctors who treated Ebola patients.
Ebola has since stopped its rapid spread in West Africa, and the number of cases has tapered off. However, this week, a teenage girl died from Ebola in Sierra Leone. And even in areas declared Ebola free, the affects of the outbreak have devastated societies in ways that will take years to repair.
We talked to Brantly and his wife, Amber, about their experience with the outbreak (which they recount in their new book, Called for Life), and why the world shouldn’t just forget about West Africa when the Ebola crisis ends.
When the outbreak started in West Africa, a lot of foreign NGO workers left. What made you decide to stay?
Kent: We went to Liberia to help provide medical care to people in the greatest need. Ebola didn’t take away our purpose for being there. If anything, it heightened our sense of purpose. We knew we had to stay to respond to this disaster that was coming to our home and to the people around us.
Amber, how did you react when you heard that Kent had Ebola?
Amber: I was becoming increasingly worrisome. Seeing Kent become sicker and sicker and his fever increased over days. I anticipated that they were doing his lab work and testing him for ebola. He called me as soon as he found out. And I cried. I wanted to come up with something that would be an encouragement to him, something to say that would strengthen him or give him a reason to hope, but I didn’t have those words. I could just say that “I’m so sorry. We’re all praying for you.”
During the process, did you wonder “What is God doing?”
Kent: Yeah. We wrestle with that kind of question. I’ve often wondered is this all part of some big scheming plan God had all along? Or did I just get Ebola because I was taking care of patients with Ebola and it’s a bad, terrible, dark thing? And God desires to work in it, and He climbed into my dark situation and brought good out of it—and not just the good of my survival, but all of the amazing things that came from my illness, including international awareness of this tragedy that was unfolding on the other side of the world.
What do you feel like you learned in the situation? Both about God and then about the wider medical community—how we should respond to a crisis like that?
Kent: One of the things we’ve seen from a medical standpoint is this outbreak has demonstrated the reality that we live in a global community, that we are all connected and that the wellbeing of all of us is directly connected to the wellbeing of each of us. I think that was true before this outbreak, but this outbreak highlighted that truth for a lot of us.
As for what I’ve learned about God. I think I’m more convinced than ever that God is sovereign in all things. But what I don’t know is just exactly what that means. I am less certain than ever before that I know or understand how God works in the world.
I read that you guys went back and visited Liberia, about a year later. What was it like being back? How had things changed?
Kent: It was really meaningful to be able to tell people in Liberia thank you. There were so many people who were in tears telling us how much they had prayed for us. We’ve been told by a lot of people all over the world how they’ve prayed for us, but there was something uniquely meaningful about hearing that from our Liberian friends.
Amber: And even hearing their stories about how their families have suffered. Everyone has been impacted by the Ebola virus, even if they themselves didn’t come down sick with it. Everyone has been touched or knows somebody who has suffered and lost.
I think the culture there will be forever changed by the impact the virus had in their country and in their infrastructure and their health system. It’s just been devastated. But the people are so strong and resilient and thankful. Everywhere you go, people are thanking God and praising God for coming through it. Even in their loss, they still give glory to God.
There have been a few new cases in West Africa recently. How can people in the West be praying for those cases and that there won’t have an outbreak as bad as last year’s?
Kent: One important thing to remember is that this outbreak has never ended. Though the numbers are dramatically less than they were last summer, they’ve never reached zero cases.
I think we in the West need to be praying that the outbreak would come to an end. One of the prayers I heard someone offer once is that the spread of Ebola would be replaced by the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ. I think that is a prayer we can pray all the time.
But beyond the end of the outbreak, people need to realize that these societies have been devastated. It’s had an impact way beyond just health care. The economies of these countries have been negatively impacted. People don’t have jobs. They haven’t had food. They haven’t been getting their normal childhood vaccines, so they’re at risk for other kinds of outbreaks. They haven’t been getting treated for malaria.
There are so many far-reaching impacts of this outbreak, and the world needs to not just pat itself on the back when we’ve reached zero cases and say, “Well done. Let’s move on.” We need to remember that these societies in West Africa are going to need a lot of assistance as they rebuild.
In writing a book, what do you hope people take away from your story?
Amber: One thing we hope people come away with is encouragement—that they’ll be encouraged to think beyond themselves and to think of themselves as global citizens. We’re all connected and we have responsibility to steward the resources we have and share them with those who don’t.
Kent: Whether the person reading our story is a person of faith or not, I think it offers a challenge to wrestle with difficult questions, the kinds of difficult questions that tragedy and suffering and disaster bring about.
Sometimes, we as Christians are a little too dismissive of those hard questions. We try to say “It was all part of God’s plan. Isn’t it great?” I think that’s letting it off the hook too easily. Thoughtful people who are not believers recognize that as a dismissive response. We do ourselves and other people a disservice when we accept a trite answer or when we’re dismissive of hard questions. We need to wrestle with them.
This story is so much bigger than us. It has affected so many more people, thousands and thousands of people, and it’s those people we need to be praying for and concerned for and still trying to help as they rebuild their lives.
Dargan is a former RELEVANT editor turned freelancer. Find her online at darganthompson.com or follow her extremely random train of thought on Twitter @darganthompson.