After his miraculous cure from Ebola, Dr. Kent Brantly remains committed to God’s call to show compassion.
by David Bennett
There had been no documented cases, ever, of Ebola in West Africa. Kent and Amber Brantly and their two young children — Ruby (5) and Stephen (3) — were living about as far west as possible in Africa without being in the North Atlantic. Ebola wasn’t on their radar, but the disease they thought they would never see arrived June 11, 2014.
Kent and Amber had signed up for a two-year term at Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA) Hospital through World Medical Mission, the medical arm of Samaritan’s Purse, which offers terms in mission hospitals to young doctors who want to pursue medical mission work for a lifetime. Kent had been working at ELWA Hospital in Monrovia for eight months when the first Ebola patient was admitted.
There had been less than twenty cases of Ebola since the virus had first been identified in 1976. Kent knew about Ebola from his medical training.
“I knew it was a really bad, viral, hemorrhagic fever with no cure, no vaccine, and an astoundingly high death rate.”
But he had no idea that his life would be at risk during what erupted into the worst Ebola outbreak the world has ever seen.
The prompting of God’s call to international service came to Kent as a student at Abilene Christian College in Texas. Between his sophomore and junior years he interned in East Africa, feeling God’s call “to show compassion.” While there, he decided to go to medical school. His plan was to use vacation time from his American-based practice to offer medical care for missionaries and their families.
“But I began to realize that I needed to use my life, not just my vacation time, in this kind of service.”
From the very beginning, it was never about becoming a doctor. Motivated by the heart of Jesus — “He saw a huge crowd and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34) — Kent wanted to devote his entire life to serving spiritual and physical needs.
Like Kent, Amber was on a mission trip, visiting missionary friends in Mexico the summer after high school graduation, when she felt a call to missions.
“But I also wanted to be a nurse. I didn’t know how I was going to put those together.” While attending college — the same college Kent was attending — she became a certified nursing assistant and served one summer in a medical clinic in Honduras. While she was there, Kent, as part of a church mission trip, joined Amber’s team. Amber taught Kent how to measure blood pressure. They ate fried fish and rice with tongue depressors because they didn’t have spoons. The experience in Honduras helped confirm Kent’s calling to attend medical school. Back in the States, God continued to deepen Kent and Amber’s relationship and they married ten days after Kent’s proposal. Four days after they married, Kent started his fourth year of medical school.
Physician Becomes Patient
Ebola had come to Monrovia two months before it arrived at the hospital that day in June. At that time, Amber and the children had been evacuated. But after a month and a half of ELWA Hospital not seeing Ebola, they returned to Liberia. In preparation for another possible outbreak, a contingency plan was made.
“We were prepared to be more offensive rather than defensive,” remembers Kent. “We were going to engage this outbreak and take care of people.” When Ebola did come, Kent and his team did just that. The chapel they used for morning staff devotionals and afternoon discipleship classes was converted into a five-bed isolation unit. Kent engaged the outbreak and cared for the sick for about seven weeks before he got sick.
On July 20, 2014, Kent took Amber and the kids to the airport for a prearranged trip to the States, planning to join them a week later. Three days later, Kent woke up not feeling right, but he wasn’t alarmed. He worked at home on the administrative tasks that were part of his role as medical director: staffing, scheduling, and training. When he called in with a fever, hospital staff came to his house and tested him for Ebola. Kent left the door unlocked for them and cleared the room so they wouldn’t come in contact with anything he had touched. Wearing protective suits and having decontaminated the area, they drew his blood and took it for testing.
The following day, Kent read Hebrews 4:16 during his devotional and prayer time. He wrote the words “with confidence” from the verse and the lyrics, “In my life, Lord, be glorified. Be glorified. In my life, Lord, be glorified today.”
On July 26, he was diagnosed with Ebola.
Near death, Kent was provided with an experimental drug that had never been used on humans. He left his home in a makeshift ambulance: a pick-up truck with side rails and a box-like frame slid into the bed covered with a blue tarp. Kent was covered, too: protective suit, gloves, boots, hood, and mask. At the airport, the ambulance parked next to the Center for Disease Control’s Airborne Biomedical Containment aircraft. Aboard the modified jet, he was led through one plastic, zippered doorway and then through another. Connected to an IV, Kent traveled on a gurney.
Fourteen hours later, he was at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta — the first person with Ebola to ever be treated in the United States. When Amber arrived at the Serious Communicable Diseases Unit, she saw him through the window in his door, speaking through an intercom. There were no guarantees about how he would respond to the experimental treatment. Kent still had Ebola and was terribly sick.
Peace that Passes Understanding
Miraculously, by August 20, Kent was declared Ebola-free and was able to walk out of the hospital and back into life. It had been a month of isolation, fear, near-death, anxiety, and peace.
“It’s hard to communicate to people that I could be peaceful and anxious. I felt a lot of anxiety. Particularly when I would have long stretches, hours and hours of time by myself alone in my house without someone there to take care of me. It’s hard to explain to people. I think that’s the thing about the peace that passes all understanding,” acknowledges Kent. When he was the sickest and spoke to Amber on the phone, Kent was able to tell her that he was okay.
“Yeah, I might die and that’s scary. But it’s okay,” he reflects. “If you tell people I was afraid and anxious, they’ll say, ‘He is trying to say that God saved his life and gave him peace and all, but really he was afraid and anxious.’ Or you might think I’m super-human without any real emotions or experience. I was afraid that I might die. But I also had peace because I knew that I was doing what God had called me to do.”
What God has called Kent and Amber to do is to love their neighbor. Jesus’ words in Mark 12:31 to “Love your neighbor as yourself” clearly motivate and inspire them. They also claim part of a psalm as their life verse:
Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wondrous works!
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice! (Psalm 105:1-3, ESV)
“‘Make known His deeds among all peoples’ — that’s what we do,” Amber declares. “As a Christian, that’s what we’re called to. As missionaries, that was our job, our theme, and our ministry. That was why we moved, to make known His deeds among people who may have never had any opportunity to hear. That’s what we feel our mission is.”
For Kent, making known the deeds of God among the peoples includes showing compassion to them the way God shows compassion for us. He sees no reason to separate words and deeds in this mission. To Kent, one’s ministry and job are the same.
“Taking care of sick people in a hospital. That’s my ministry and the reason I do it is because God has had mercy and compassion on me. I want to show mercy and compassion to people in need, doing it in the name of Christ, because Christ has called me to love my neighbor.
“Life doesn’t just get tough for people living in places like Liberia. Life is tough for the mom who is trying to put together a budget and make ends meet for her family. Life is tough for everybody. Some people might read the title of our book, Called for Life, and think that means spending our lives in Liberia. It’s bigger than that. It’s the idea that God has called us all. There is a call to use our lives in a way that’s glorifying to Him, in a way that is helpful and useful to other people. That includes loving your neighbor as yourself.
“It’s human nature to be concerned about the well-being of people we know. But when we reach the point where we have the same sense of concern and compassion for people we do not know, who are facing some sort of difficulty, trial, or danger, I believe that’s what Jesus is talking about when He said to love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Processing these experiences has helped Kent and Amber give language to the things that motivate them. Randy Harris — Kent’s professor, friend, and mentor — asked once, “What informs your theology more: your experience with Ebola or the nine months before that, living and working in Liberia?” Without hesitation, Kent answered, “The nine months before Ebola.”
“I think our experience with Ebola is a magnified example of life for the nine months before that, trying to live cross-culturally, serving people in great need, dealing with death on an almost daily basis. That impacts your thoughts about who God is, how He works, and who we are supposed to be in relation to Him.”
Trusting God for the Next Step
Kent and Amber continue to discern God’s call. They’re open to doing something different or doing what they have been doing in a different way. Both are eager to get back to the work they were doing before Ebola. Contracting Ebola hasn’t lessened Kent’s resolve to follow wherever God leads.
“I don’t claim to know how God works. But this I do know: I was facing death, and now I’m alive. And with life comes responsibility. Paul put it this way: ‘For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ (Philippians 1:21, ESV).” Two statements from two missionaries separated by two thousand years but united by God in purpose and call.
“I want to be faithful. I don’t want to be the guy who was faithful to the point of taking his family to Africa and then threw in the towel at the end because I got sick.”
Kent currently serves as medical missions advisor for Samaritan’s Purse.
David Bennett was introduced to missions through his church youth group. As an adult, he has served in short-term missions in Haiti, Honduras, and numerous locations throughout the U.S.
This article originally appeared in HomeLife magazine (January 2016). For more articles like this, subscribe to HomeLife.