Charlotte missionaries Nancy and David Writebol worked long hours in Liberia to help ready a hospital there to treat victims of the Ebola outbreak. They never imagined either of them would contract the deadly virus.
“We didn’t really talk or think: ‘Would we get it?’ ” David Writebol told the Observer in a Friday phone interview from Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. “We followed all the precautions and protocols and didn’t dwell on it.”
But Nancy Writebol, 59, did get infected with the virus and is now being treated in an isolation unit at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, where she was taken this week after a specially equipped medical plane transported her from Monrovia.
Though he and his wife are currently half a world away from each other, David Writebol, 58, has been talking to Nancy by phone.
“I spoke to her a couple of times (Thursday),” he said. “She continues to be very weak. But her voice sounds a bit stronger. And I’m told that she’s making progress. I think it’s still too early to tell how things are going to go. But we’re continuing to be hopeful.”
In the nearly hour-long interview – his first with a reporter since his wife got sick – Writebol talked about everything from his “heavy conversations” with Nancy after she tested positive for the virus to their long life together, from junior high school clarinet players who fell in love in band class to missionaries who answered a spiritual call to serve in Ecuador, then Zambia, and finally Liberia.
He also talked about his frustration at not being able to be with Nancy in Atlanta. Because he had contact with her after she contracted Ebola, he is still on the 130-acre compound in Monrovia, nearing the end of a 21-day incubation period that’s recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Only then can he be cleared to travel. SIM USA, the Charlotte-based missionary group that sent the Writebols to Liberia, is “working on plans,” Writebol said, “to return (him) to the States at the right time and in the right way.”
The first symptom of Ebola is often an elevated fever, so Writebol is taking his temperature every six hours. It was 97.3, in the normal range, Friday morning, he said. “I think I probably feel as (physically) good as I have in months,” he reported.
Though he’s not nearly as isolated as his wife, who is treated by health workers wearing Hazmat-like suits, Writebol can’t have any physical contact with anyone while in the incubation period. He’s not showing symptoms, and health officials say the virus can only be spread by people who are. But he’s staying 3 to 4 feet away from people “out of an abundance of caution.”
So he said he’s mostly resting, reading the Bible, communicating with family and friends, finishing some work and turning other chores over to the staff.
And his state of mind?
On the one hand, he said: “Yes, I’m frustrated that I can’t be where I want to be (with Nancy and their sons in Atlanta),” he said. “But I don’t want to put anybody in danger. I certainly wouldn’t want to put my family in further danger. Or anybody else, for that matter. My best thought is to rest carefully and quietly and look forward to the day when we’ll be together. And that’ll be a great day.”
In the meantime, he said he’s soothed by Scripture and by a sense that “God has filled me with his peace.”
His son, Jeremy, an associate pastor at an evangelical church in Kansas, directed him to Psalm 91, which, Writebol said, speaks powerfully to these trying times for his family. Over the phone, he recited the first lines: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord: ‘My refuge and my fortress is my God in whom I trust.’ ”
‘We cried – a lot’
As the Ebola outbreak started in West Africa, the Writebols’ worked with others at the SIM-run compound in Monrovia to get its hospital and clinic there ready to treat victims. David oversaw utilities; Nancy was personnel director, but helped in the hospital.
She worked 16-to-20 hour days, preparing chlorine solution for decontamination of the health care team as they emerged from the isolation unit. She also helped them suit up before entering, “making sure they were in their personal protective equipment, with no exposed skin or anything like that.” David helped prepare the isolation unit.
“We had plenty of work to do,” he said.
When the Writebols arrived in Liberia one year ago, there were plans afoot to rebuild the hospital, launch new ministries and spruce up the compound.
“There was excitement,” Writebol said. “But with this (Ebola) crisis, there was a growing sense of fear and concern that came over the compound.”
Writebol said he has no idea how his wife became infected. “We thought all the cautions and protocols were in place,” he said. “So I don’t have any sense of what may have happened.We at no time felt like it was an inordinate or unacceptable or even a dangerous situation.”
Her first symptom, he said, was a headache. “We actually wondered if it wasn’t just a case of malaria.”
After Nancy was diagnosed, she was put in isolation. David could only talk with her through a bedroom window or while wearing a heavy, protective suit.
What did they talk about?
About their love for each other and for Jesus, about their sons and their wives and children.
“We cried – a lot,” he said. “But we also drew strength from shared Scripture. I particularly remember reading Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul was expressing joy and rejoicing even though he was in prison. Ebola is kind of like being in prison.”
“Those were heavy conversations,” Writebol said.
Love at first sight
The Writebols met in band class in junior high in the mountain town of Evergreen, Colo.
For David, “it was one of those rare stories of love at first sight. I just knew I loved her from the moment I saw her.”
In 1974, they got married. They thought they were being called even then to go abroad as missionaries. But when Nancy’s first pregnancy met with complications, they decided God wanted them to delay that plan.
In 1993, the Writebols, then living in Minnesota, moved to Charlotte. David worked for a software company whose clients were banks, and it was shifting its jobs to Charlotte.
In 1994, the couple joined nondenominational Calvary Church. And with their sons going off to college, they finally took the missionary path. They worked with orphans and widows in Ecuador (for five years) and in Zambia (for eight years). And then, in 2013, they decided to go to Liberia.
As missionaries, David Writebol said Friday, “we’ve learned much about how God loves people and uses us.”
And as crushing as his wife’s illness is to him, he said, he’s hopeful that it will help spur action against the virus that is ravaging West Africa – and even lead to a cure.
“It’s how God works good out of tragedy,” he said.
Here’s what Writebol said about: