We woke up early in a hotel near Jerusalem at the beginning of April. An email from my father-in-law caused my heart to skip a beat - and panic filled my thoughts. Ebola had shown up in Monrovia. Amber and the kids were being evacuated in a proactive, immediate response by Samaritan's Purse. Only the most active health care workers would remain to prepare their emergency response to treating the Ebola victims. Kent would stay behind.
I was in a panic. I wanted Kent out too. How could his family leave without him? I know he's a doctor and he was there for such a time as this, but really, that all sounds much better in ideal than in reality. Love your neighbor, perfect love drives out fear, I get all that. But we're talking about EBOLA here. I wanted Kent evacuated.
Later that day we were leading our group around the Old City of Jerusalem. One of the sites we visited was St. Anne's Church, near the Pools of Bethesda. This is a popular, Crusader-era church building famous for its acoustics; you can almost always find people singing praises within.
Just after our group arrived a joyful procession of Africans, I believe from Nigeria, came dancing in together through the courtyard; bright colored clothing and flashing white smiles singing with passion, rhythm, and the purest of joy. Their worship was intoxicating. I was overwhelmed. I fought to contain my emotion, not wanting to explain my angst to the group members. But as I wept inside for the Brantly family's separation, and feared for Kent being left behind, I also felt my heart begin to soften as I remembered the families and people suffering from the Ebola virus disease in west Africa. It was the first of many subsequent moments I have repented for my selfishness in praying and fearing only for the lives of those I know. I valued the lives of my loved ones above others, when I am called to love my neighbor and should be praying fervently for all.
Kent was established as the Medical Director for the Ebola Consolidated Case Management Center in Monrovia, Liberia at ELWA hospital. He helped train the medical staff to ensure protection for the medical workers and the best available treatment for those suffering from Ebola. The virus spread slower than initially feared in Monrovia and Amber and the kids were able to return.
Then things picked up. The number of Ebola patients increased steadily and Kent and the hospital workers worked diligently to contain the virus. They'd had time to prepare and executed their training well. However, they also continued to do rounds outside of the Ebola quarantine unit and in these areas of the hospital less protective gear was worn. This is where medical workers were at the greatest risk of infection, if they came into contact with a sick patient who had yet to be diagnosed as having Ebola. Which brings up one of the questions I see floating around (more as an accusation than a question, but regardless) quite often:
If it's so hard to catch, why is it spreading like wildfire in Africa??
Medical availability is far more limited in Liberia than in this country, and educating people about the disease and how it is spread is an uphill battle. We all fear conspiracy when things happen that we don't understand, and the Liberians were no different. Why should they trust the white doctors who took away their husbands, fathers, mothers, daughters, and forbid them from seeing them? What are they really doing to them? Treating or killing them? They wouldn't even let them provide a proper burial! Conspiracy indeed.
While it is familiar in our culture to allow others to prepare the bodies of our loved ones for burial, that is not the case in many places in Africa. Family members prepare the bodies, kissing them goodbye, and other practices that continue to promote the rapid spread of this disease. Today those in Africa who are infected with Ebola may often have no place to go even if they seek professional medical attention. Their family members are obligated to care for them, and more often than not will catch the disease as they struggle to comfort and clean up the horrible symptoms of vomit and diarrhea that often accompany this disease. If they don't catch it caring for their loved ones, they may during the burial process.
It's a horrible disease that strips people of all dignity. It subjects loved ones to a choice of leaving Ebola victims to suffer, die, and be buried alone, or offering care and most likely catching the disease themselves. Yet for many it's not even a choice. Lack of education prevents them from knowing how the disease is spread. It's a vicious cycle.
We do not have that situation in the United States. Not even close. We have all the resources we need to be educated on how the disease is and isn't spread and what the realistic threats are. We have treatment facilities that increase the odds of survival dramatically from what's available in much of Africa. And yet even we cry conspiracy when we become fearful, thinking surely there's something we aren't being told. We can't accept that something out of our control could strike us. Africa, sure, but not us.
We were content as a whole to ignore the plight of our neighbors in Africa as the Ebola virus continued to pick up pace. It's impossible to know how bad it would have gotten before we would have paid attention.
But then an American doctor contracted the disease. That doctor was Kent. We found out that our brother-in-law had contracted Ebola only just ahead of the media frenzy. Before long it seemed the whole world knew. An American had Ebola.
The response was overwhelming. Those who loved Kent and our family poured out blessings and prayers on his behalf. Many who didn't know us did the same. He suffered greatly through a long week, isolated in his home in Liberia, clinging to life. Finally, the right doors opened to bring him back to the States for the treatment and attention he so desperately needed.
Even as we initially celebrated the news that he was being brought back, it was in the back of my mind that we would have to endure the panic response of those fearful of "Ebola coming to the States." By that point, our family were among the most educated about the disease and knew the threat to others was next to none. Emory hospital was well prepared and took every precaution. They successfully treated both Kent and Nancy and the disease spread no further, as anticipated. We were overwhelmingly thankful.
But the hysteria continued, and has come back full force with the recent...outbreak (?)...in Dallas. A hospital was caught unaware when a patient from Liberia first came in and we don't know what happened from there. He was treated, but sadly passed away. The first death from Ebola on American soil.
Then the greatest fear. The one that fearmongers had warned about in panicked social media posts since Kent's initial arrival. One of the nurses caught the disease. And then another. This most recent case has caused incredible concern because she had been on a plane the day before her symptoms appeared. The day BEFORE. So she wasn't contagious then. But it's important to follow up so all those on that flight were notified and will be monitored. Two of those on the flight happen to attend schools in my hometown of Belton, TX. According to my Facebook page, it seems all hell has now broken loose. Social media sites have been taken over by expressions of fear and anxiety in ways that truly break my heart.
But I understand. I really do. I remember what it was like to fear for my family when this disease first threatened, when I didn't understand much about it. The reality of that situation was Kent, Amber and the kids were actually at risk for exposure. They were actively treating or living near many with confirmed Ebola cases. That is not the situation in Dallas, Belton, or the rest of the United States. The risk of infection is so marginal from these events that it's hardly worth mentioning - and yet the presence of fear is overwhelming.
I don't know what went wrong during the treatment of Thomas Eric Duncan that caused these nurses to catch the Ebola virus disease. Something did. The disease did not suddenly become airborne. It is not actually more contagious than we have been told; we are not being lied to. For real, my information comes from a doctor quite familiar with the disease. I won't even attempt to speak to the countless conspiracy theories, accusations, ignorant fears and factless dialogs.
So how should we respond?
The way we choose to respond during this Ebola crisis matters. The current threat in Dallas, Belton, and the rest of the United States is virtually non-existent. But even if it wasn't - even if there WAS a real and present danger - is this kind of fear, panic, condemnation, slander, and accusation what we want to promote?
We will all die someday. It's not important how. What is important is how we live. Let's live lives that proclaim love over fear, and peace over panic. We were able to hear Kent speak in Abilene at ACU last Friday. He summed things up well saying, "We need to stop worrying about the irrational and start figuring out how to love our neighbors..."
I will continue to repent of my own ignorance and selfishness that caused me to plead desperately for the life of my brother-in-law, in a way I never considered doing so for my neighbors - those I didn't know who continue to suffer and die in Africa.
Ebola is causing incredible tragedy in this world. In Africa it has caused a deadly epidemic that has taken thousands of physical lives. In the United States it is causing an epidemic of selfishness, self-preservation, and fear that fails to reflect the love of God. The later concerns me more than anything. Hundreds had died in Africa before many of us even knew the word "Ebola." We didn't care until it threatened us. But we can choose going forward to respond differently, to choose love over fear.
-1 John 4:18