Health & Family

Joy, tears: Nancy Writebol talks about her journey on anniversary of Ebola diagnosis

SIM missionaries Nancy and David Writebol after her recovery from Ebola virus infection, in August 2014.
SIM missionaries Nancy and David Writebol after her recovery from Ebola virus infection, in August 2014. Photo courtesy of SIM

A year ago on July 26, Nancy Writebol, a missionary with Charlotte-based SIM USA, became one of the first Americans diagnosed with Ebola virus infection in West Africa.

She and Dr. Kent Brantly, a missionary with Samaritan’s Purse, attracted worldwide attention when they were evacuated from Liberia to Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital, where they stayed for about two weeks. Both recovered after receiving doses of an experimental drug, intravenous fluids and replacement electrolytes.

Since then, Writebol and her husband, David, who never became ill, have traveled in Europe and the United States, from New York to Washington state, speaking about Ebola and their mission work. In mid-March, the couple returned to Liberia for a 10-day visit on the SIM campus outside Monrovia. In June, they went back for a five-year assignment.

We caught up with Nancy Writebol by telephone from Liberia last week. She acknowledged that, when she was released from Emory, she wasn’t sure she wanted to go back to Liberia. She and her husband consider themselves Charlotteans and are members of Calvary Church. But as they spent time talking and praying, she said, “It just became really evident to us that that’s where God had called us, and God had not released us from that call. We just walk in obedience to Him.”

Here are some highlights of our conversation:

Question: How are you feeling these days?

Answer: I’m doing really good. Just keeping really busy. I’ve told many people I wish my stamina was back to 100 percent, and they say, “We’re glad it’s not. We can’t keep up with you.” I still have pain with my knees, especially going up and down steps. For the most part, I’m just really thankful to be alive.

Q. What are your jobs now?

A. David is the country director now for SIM Liberia. He’s responsible for the campus and all the ministry that goes on in Liberia.…I continue to be the personnel coordinator for SIM.…helping missionary families get settled. I’m also now involved with the Trauma Healing Institute and with a survivors clinic…We’ve had trauma healing training for leaders…It’s just been amazing to watch God at work in people’s lives and the way that people have just been able to give their trauma to the Lord and to recognize areas that need reconciliation.

Q. More than 27,000 people in West Africa have contracted Ebola since the outbreak began in March 2014, and 11,000 have died. At the peak of transmission, Liberia was reporting 300 to 400 new cases every week, but in May, the country was declared Ebola-free. In recent weeks, Liberia reported six new cases of Ebola infection, and of those, four people survived after treatment at the Ebola isolation unit on the SIM campus. How does that compare with last year?

A. It’s wonderful. Part of it has to do with the fact that we’ve learned so much in how to care for patients. When this first hit a year ago, and because of the numbers of people, the care was not nearly what the care can be today.… The sooner they’re identified, the sooner that IVs can be started, the greater the chance that they’ll survive.

Q. You gave blood at least once for a transfusion to help an Ebola patient in the United States. The idea is that, as a survivor, you’ve developed antibodies that could help another patient fight off the virus. Have you donated again?

A. I’ve actually given five times. Our plasma is collected and banked at Emory. It’s frozen in case it’s needed. It’s been used in scientific research. There are some studies going on to make a vaccine.

Q. Do you have any idea how you were infected?

A. No, I don’t. I think that will always be the big mystery. Most of the doctors feel like I contracted it from a co-worker who died shortly after Kent and I were diagnosed. He contracted it in the community but was coming to work sick and not telling anybody.

Q. You turned 60 on July 22. Did you doing anything special to mark that day or the anniversary of your diagnosis on July 26?

A. We went out to dinner with Dr. (John) Fankhauser (an SIM missionary who took care of Writebol and Brantly in Liberia last year) and his wife Beth. One year ago on my birthday, I got sick, but I was not diagnosed, we didn’t know it was Ebola until four days later.…(At the birthday dinner), there was lots of joy and lots of tears.

Q. How do you view Liberia or your work differently?

A. It’s really interesting. There’s a real identification with the Liberians. …I had one of the nurses say to me recently that she had gone home to her husband and said, “Nancy and I have always worked together, but I just really feel like we have this wonderful friendship now.” There is a real sweetness with relationships....

I think that having gone through Ebola (myself), there is an identification with the people that I didn’t have before. I’ve had some Liberians even say to me, “If we had been you, we wouldn’t have come back.” There’s probably not a day that has gone by that I haven’t heard a Liberian say, “Thank you for coming back.”

Q. What are you thankful for?

A. We have a new grand baby, a boy named Abel. (The fourth child of son Brian and wife Esther in Spokane, Wash.) Esther was pregnant when I had Ebola. And I’m just so thankful that the Lord has allowed me to hold that baby.… I’d also just like to say thank you to all our church family and to all the people that just prayed for us during that time.

Karen Garloch: 704-358-5078, @kgarloch