In mid-March, Nancy and David Writebol, missionaries with Charlotte-based SIM USA, returned to Liberia, to the hospital camp where nine months ago she became one of the first two Americans to contract the dreaded Ebola virus.
Compared with last year, the couple found a different scene. More than 25,000 people in West Africa have contracted Ebola since the outbreak began in March 2014, and 10,000 people have died. But since March 20, no new cases have been reported in Liberia.
“What a gift it was to be able to go back to Liberia,” Writebol told an audience at UNC Charlotte earlier this month.
After spending two days in a SIM guest house, Writebol said she told her husband, “It’s time to go home.” But she didn’t mean Charlotte. She meant the home they had shared in Liberia when she got sick last summer. It had been decontaminated, so they moved back for the rest of their stay – “as if nothing had ever happened there.”
Writebol said Liberians told them the Ebola epidemic has been tougher to live through than the 14-year civil war, which devastated the country 10 years ago. During the war, Liberians told them, “We could see our enemy. We could run from our enemy,” Nancy Writebol said. “…With Ebola, we couldn’t see our enemy.”
Writebol said she’s being trained in “trauma healing and counseling,” and they plan to return to Liberia to help Ebola survivors and rebuild the country’s health care system.
Even now, Writebol said neither she nor Dr. Kent Brantly, a missionary who became ill the same week last July, knows how they contracted the virus. But they don’t believe it happened while he was caring for Ebola patients or while she was decontaminating health care workers as they left the mission’s Ebola isolation unit.
Writebol said it’s possible they got it from a Liberian health care worker who contracted the virus and died later. “We don’t know,” she said.
In August, Writebol and Brantly were airlifted to Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital, where both recovered. They have said they always followed strict protocol. Writebol served as a hygienist, spraying caregivers with bleach as they removed layers of protective gear after treating Ebola patients. She said the process could take 20 to 30 minutes.
Dr. Debbie Eisenhut, a SIM missionary who also spoke in Charlotte, said extreme heat and humidity made the work more difficult, raising the risk of dehydration and muscle cramps. Sometimes when she took off her gloves, Eisenhut said they had sweat “sloshing” inside.
Eisenhut, who cared for Writebol and Brantly before they were evacuated, helped launch preparations several months before Ebola appeared in Liberia. They created an isolation unit out of a former chapel, erected a tent hospital for triage, and trained staff and volunteers how to properly don and remove protective gear.
As an aid, they all learned a song – to the tune of “Ten Little Indians” – listing possible symptoms of Ebola. The first verse: “Headache, vomiting, runny stomach. Too much weakness, pain in the tummy. Pain in muscles, swallow hurts him. Hiccups and can’t breathe!”
Days after Writebol and Brantly were airlifted out of Liberia, Eisenhut was on a plane with David Writebol and other missionaries, bound for Charlotte. They stayed in quarantine on the SIM campus until the end of their 21-day incubation periods.
Last week, Eisenhut returned to Liberia for the first time since August.
“It will be a big deal for me to walk into the hospital again,” she said. “As long as there is Ebola anywhere in West Africa, you can’t rest easy.”