Sheer Heroism

Infected Ebola Doctor Kent Brantly Is an Endangered Hero

The bravery of medical professionals treating Ebola patients is as inspiring as that of any other hero. And the peril they face is just as real.


The medical evacuation plane reached Dobbins Air Force Base in Georgia at 11:20 a.m. on Saturday with a hero from the hot zone who is the equal of any from a combat zone.

Among his fellow devout Christians, 33-year-old Dr. Kent Brantly should be honored as someone who has lived the answer to the question of What Would Jesus Do?

But he is a no less worthy example for those of any faith, or no faith at all.

Even atheists could find a guide to goodness in asking themselves What Would Kent Do?

What Jesus would do is what Brantly did when he agreed to work in an Ebola isolation ward in Liberia despite being admittedly terrified.

What Brantly also did was what Jesus also would have done after the doctor’s worst fears became real and he was infected along with a fellow health worker.

Only one dose of an experimental serum was available, and Brantly insisted that it go to his colleague, Nancy Writebol.

Instead, Brantly got a blood transfusion from a 14 year-old Ebola survivor who was among those the doctor had treated while placing himself in such mortal peril.

A good preacher could draw a telling parallel between the absolving blood of Christ and the blood of this teen, which contains antibodies from the successful fight against the virus that Brantley so selflessly assisted.

The hope now is that those antibodies will now help Brantly in his own battle for life.

Doctors speak of a seemingly near miracle decades ago in what was then Zaire and what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo involving a health care worker who had been just as brave as Brantly.

This earlier hero was a 27-year-old nurse at Kikwit General Hospital who had fallen ill after volunteering to treat two Italian nuns suffering from Ebola. The nurse had been wearing protective gear, but she may have inadvertently touched her eyes with infected gloves.

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The nuns died and the nurse seemed sure to follow. The only treatment that had shown any promise at all involved a serum that had been extracted from the blood of those few lucky survivors of an epidemic back in 1976. The serum had been administrated along with human interferon to a British researcher who had become infected in his lab and he had recovered. But it was not entirely clear whether the serum was responsible for the happy outcome. The serum failed to neutralize the virus in subsequent tests and seemed to offer little protection in animal experiments.

In any event, no serum was available to try on this nurse in 1995 and Kikwit was not equipped to make a new batch. Her colleagues at the hospital decided that they had nothing to lose by giving her an infusion of whole blood from an Ebola survivor.

Some prominent medical authorities called the Congolese doctors reckless even though the blood was first tested for HIV and hepatitis and despite the only alternative being nothing at all.

“They didn’t believe it could work,” recalls Dr. Robert Colebunders of the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Antwerp, a co-author of a report on the last ditch effort.

The criticism was muted when the nurse’s condition began to improve remarkably two days after she received 400 cubic centimeters of the survivor’s blood. She got better with each passing day and was discharged from the hospital after three weeks, herself a survivor.

By then, the doctors had decided to try the treatment on seven other patients with blood from a total of five survivors. These patients included a 12 year-old girl who had contracted Ebola either by exposure to the vomit of an infected aunt who had just given birth or by cuddling and kissing the newborn. The girl was critically ill when she received 150 cubic centimeters of survivor’s blood. She was declared healthy eight days later.

“All of her symptoms had disappeared,” the subsequent report notes.

There was also a 15 year-old girl who became infected during the ritual funeral for her mother, an Ebola victim. The girl had a raging fever and seemed all but sure to be the next in her family to die when she received a 150 cubic centimeter transfusion.

“Two days later, her temperature was normal,” the report says.

What had been a last desperate effort began to seem like a possible treatment as similar recoveries were enjoyed by a 54-year-old woman who had become infected in a maternity ward and by a 44-year-old woman who had been exposed while tending to her daughter in a clinic where the person in the next bad was dying of Ebola. The daughter had also been exposed and was comatose before she and her mother each received A 250 cubic centimeter transfusion. Both were soon after discharged.

A 40-year-old woman who had apparently contracted Ebola after a glove she used while touching a dying nephew proved to have been perforated. She grew increasingly ill despite a 450 cubic centimeter transfusion and became comatose after five days. But then she suddenly began to improve, regaining full consciousness.

The success rate was stacking up to be seven for seven when a 48-year-old woman who had become infected via contact with an ill friend was given 400 cubic centimeters of blood. Her fever vanished AND she seemed on her way to becoming another remarkable success. She then suffered an epileptic seizure and was treated with an appropriate medication.

“Six hours later, she was found dead on the floor, next to her bed, “ the report notes.

Even so, seven of eight patients had survived, a fatality rate of 12.5 per cent with a disease that otherwise killed some 80 per cent of its victims.

Elation turned to puzzlement as six infected nuns who received infusions all died. Four of five other infused patients also perished. And a check of the record showed that a Belgian nun had succumbed back in 1976 despite receiving three infusions in the first eight days of her illness.

The subsequent report on the surprising successes in 1995 allowed that the whole blood from survivors might have only been a mitigating factor.

“Transfusions are probably useful for the treatment or prevention of shock and may provide coagulation factors to stop or to prevent bleeding,” the report says with the caution of good science. “However, because of the small number of patients studied and the lack of control subjects, we cannot conclude that the neutralizing antibodies in transfused convalescent blood improves the outcome.”

Even so, the numbers were remarkable.

“It could be a coincidence, but in the Congo seven surviving from eight, it’s quite spectacular,” Colebunders says.

We could only hope that those odds were with Kent Brantly as he was transported from the air force base in Marietta to Emery Hospital in Atlanta.

The most rousing and heartening sight of the day was of Brantly proving able to step from the back of the ambulance in a white biohazard suit. A man in a similar suit remained protectively at his side as he took the 30 steps to a hospital entrance. He was a touch unsteady, but he walked without assistance and his tread was so determinedly even as to make you hope the seeming miracle of 19 years ago might repeat itself..

Brantly’s two young children, aged 3 and 5, had stayed home back in Texas. But his wife was waiting to see him, as was the rest of his family. The plane that brought him here had gone back to get Writebol and she is expected to join him in the isolation unit.

Brantly becomes the first person actually in America known to have Ebola. He also returns to us as a reminder of how magnificently decent we can be by actually living in accordance to principles we are all supposed to share.

Brantly would dismiss any comparison between him and Christ.

But, even if you do not believe in Jesus, you can ask yourself WWKD?