"Kent, bud. We got your test result. And I'm really sorry to tell you that it is positive for Ebola."
I had not expected to hear those words despite the mounting evidence over the past three days — the worsening symptoms, the repeated negative malaria tests — that would have led me to suspect Ebola had I been the doctor rather than the patient.
Our first Ebola patient had come to our hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, barely six weeks earlier. But we had worked under the strain of a looming Ebola outbreak for nearly three anxious months before then. For the 38 years since Ebola Virus Disease had been identified, every outbreak had been limited to small rural communities.
This time, however, was different. This time, Ebola had found the perfect storm of factors, quickly spreading through three countries and into major urban centers.
Our hospital of 45 to 50 beds hurriedly converted the chapel into a small isolation unit, hoping it would never be needed. When our first Ebola patient arrived, we maintained the only treatment unit in all of southern Liberia.
In the beginning stages of what erupted into the worst Ebola outbreak the world has ever seen, I had learned to consider Ebola anytime a patient entered our emergency room with a fever and symptoms that, just a few months earlier, would have been suspected as likely malaria or typhoid fever. In fact, for the safety of our medical workers, we treated all febrile patients as though they had Ebola until proven otherwise. It was too risky not to.
The Ebola strain we observed carried a mortality rate of 70 percent. The death rate was even higher in our hospital, where only one of the dozens of patients who had tested positive for Ebola had survived.
Ebola didn't just kill our patients; it stripped them of their dignity. Ebola humiliated its victims by taking away control of their bodily functions. We constantly changed diapers and sheets and cleaned up patients, and we fed them when they could no longer do so themselves.
Unable to cure their disease, we focused on treating their sense of isolation that came from being in a treatment unit where only two groups of people were allowed inside. One group was the medical personnel always working with their own safety in the front of their minds in light of the disproportionate number of health-care workers contracting the disease. The second group was other Ebola patients, moaning and groaning in pain until their bodies could fight no longer.
For all but that one patient, a positive Ebola test had become a death sentence served out among suffering patients and cautious medical personnel — some unknown foreigners, even — outfitted so securely that only our eyes were visible through the protective goggles.
No families. No friends. No familiar faces. No human contact. With no cure, no hope.
As the outbreak had worsened and our hospital worked to expand our capacity, I was named director of the treatment unit. I became the physician who ensured that our staff was properly trained, repeatedly reassuring them that when we followed the protocols and worked together as a team, we were completely safe. The staff had trusted me too, because for each of my patients, I had determined to display compassion over fear.
And now Dr. Lance Plyler, the team leader responsible for managing our medical response to Ebola, was standing outside my bedroom window, because he could not come into my contaminated home, notifying me that I, too, had contracted the virus. Dr. John Fankhauser, my colleague and mentor in Liberia for nine busy months, stood beside my bed dressed in full personal protective equipment, just as I had stood beside the beds of too many patients in our Ebola unit, because he wanted to be with me when Lance delivered the news.
"I really wish you hadn't said that," I told Lance.
I was so sick at that point that I don't remember saying those words; that is Lance's recollection of my reaction. But I do remember what I said immediately after.
"OK, so what is next? What's our plan? What are we going to do?"
I am a doctor, trained to respond to a bad test result by creating a plan. More importantly, I am a husband and a father, and my thoughts turned to my beautiful wife and children back home in the United States. I might not see them, much less touch them, ever again.
I stared out our bedroom window, looking to Lance. "How am I going to tell Amber?"
I don't recall how Lance and John answered when I asked about our plan. I remember John stepping out of my bedroom to leave me alone when I called Amber, but not even the phone call itself is in my memory.
My phone rang at 4 p.m. in Abilene. We had returned to my parents' house, and I hurried to the bedroom where I could have privacy.
"The test results came back," Kent said. "It's positive."
I didn't know how to respond, and I sensed Kent was waiting for me to say something.
"I'm so sorry," I told him. That was all I could say.
I started to cry. Kent didn't cry. He told me several times how much peace he felt. He was so calm. We didn't stay on the phone long, just a few minutes. He hadn't been able to talk long before because of his weakness and fatigue, and he said he had more calls to make. We said we loved each other and hung up.
I laid across the bed and cried for several minutes. I went into the bathroom, dried my face with a hand towel, and returned to sit on the bed.
I sent my dad a text: "Daddy."
That was all I knew to say. That was all I needed to say.
Dad came quickly into the bedroom, followed by Mom. I didn't tell them anything. They knew. They sat beside me on the bed and we wept. It felt like we were on the bed for a long time, holding each other and crying.
Our plane landed at Dobbins Air Reserve Base outside Atlanta at just after 11 a.m. Eastern time. Nurse Jonathan Jackson came into the pod and helped me into a new suit. The crew had placed pads on the floor of the plane and drapes over the seats. Because I had geared up inside the pod, my suit had to be treated as contaminated along with anything my suit touched.
One of the two paramedics from the waiting ambulance, John Arevalo, came into the plane and greeted me. John assisted me down the aisle and through the zippered entryway. We took our time going down the steps. When we reached flat ground, I was definitely weak and exhausted, but I had made the descent without any trouble.
A stretcher was waiting for me, and once I was secured on the stretcher, John looked down at me and said, "Welcome home."
The inside of the ambulance — a real ambulance, not a pickup with wooden rails like the one I'd taken in ELWA — had been modified so that if anything spilled, the fluids would be contained. A second ambulance had been prepared in the same manner in case something happened to our ambulance on the way to the hospital. They did not tell me this then, but they had taken into account the possibility that someone opposed to my being brought into the United States might try to disrupt the ambulance trip.
It's funny that at ELWA and in Atlanta, both teams that transported me had the same idea of preparing a backup ambulance, but for very different reasons. In Atlanta they anticipated the possibility of sabotage. At ELWA my friends feared our truck would break down.
The drive from Dobbins to Emory was about 30 minutes. I had no clue that news helicopters were overhead and our motorcade was being televised live all across the nation. I've heard my ambulance trip compared to O. J. Simpson's infamous ride in the white Ford Bronco.
Many people have told me that they remember where they were when they watched the first patient with Ebola touch American soil, wondering what would happen next.
When the ambulance came to a stop in a utility parking lot at Emory, John, the paramedic, asked, "Do you think you can walk into the hospital?"
"How far is it?" I asked.
"Not far at all — it's just right there," he said. "But when we get inside, there are some more stairs."
"How many steps is it?" I asked. "Is it more or less than the jet?"
Exiting the jet had been difficult and exhausting, and I wasn't sure if I could walk up more steps than the airplane had.
"It is probably more, but they are not as big and they are not as steep," he said. "If you can't do it, we will take you in on the stretcher. Not a problem. But if you can do it, there is an entrance right here that will take us to where we need to go."
"OK," I said.
Again, I had no idea that helicopter cameras were trained on our ambulance, waiting for the back door to open. John backed out of the ambulance and onto the ground, then extended his right hand to hold mine. The door to my left was open, and I grabbed on to it with my left hand to steady myself, and then put my left foot down on the step, followed by my right foot. The next step down to the ground was farther, but I made it fine, again left foot first.
John stepped around to my left to close the ambulance door, held both of my hands, and walked on my left side toward a back entrance of the hospital. The cameras recorded me walking gingerly.
When we arrived at the hospital, I was only wearing my booties and the path from the ambulance was gravel. My steps were measured because I was practically walking barefoot on gravel.
I have watched video of my arrival, and commentators speculated about what might be inside the bag I was carrying with both hands. That wasn't medicine, as some wondered aloud, or anything medical even. That was my one-gallon Ziploc bag of personal items, including — yes — my old Sam's Club membership card.
Out of sight of the news cameras, we reached the stairs just inside the hospital door. John sensed that I was getting tired and asked if I wanted to take a break. I nodded. John gave me a quick breather, then we went up the steps and into the hallway just outside the isolation unit.
My walking from the ambulance to the hospital is probably the one thing people bring up the most when we talk. Most medical-expert commentators were surprised. Some called my walking in "a miracle." Some remarked that it was an encouraging sign for my chances of recovery.
Franklin Graham had asked the Samaritan's Purse vice presidents during a meeting four days earlier, "Wouldn't it be a testimony to the power of Jesus Christ if Kent Brantly walked off that airplane?"
Watching someone you love or are concerned about strapped to a stretcher and being wheeled into a hospital by paramedics can be defeating. It is never encouraging. Although I was not trying to make a statement by choosing to walk in, my 30-second walk really resonated with people who witnessed it.
So many people had been praying for me, and I think to see me walking when they anticipated that I was on death's doorstep served as a live picture of answered prayer. I have been told countless times, "When we saw you walk out of that ambulance, we just praised God."
Adapted from "Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic." Copyright © 2015 by Kent Brantly and Amber Brantly. Published by WaterBrook Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Behind the story
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
On Aug. 2, 2014, the nation's eyes were on Emory University Hospital as the first person known to be infected with Ebola stepped foot on American soil. Medical missionary Dr. Kent Brantly contracted the deadly disease while treating patients in Liberia and came to Atlanta for treatment. Astonishingly, he survived and left the hospital 19 days later. Along with writer David Thomas, Kent Brantly and his wife, Amber Brantly, have written a book about their experience titled "Called for Life." Here is an adapted excerpt, printed with permission from WaterBrook Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor