Health & Family

Charlotte missionary Nancy Writebol talks about her struggle with Ebola

In late July, after several days of running a fever, Charlotte missionary Nancy Writebol said her doctor in Liberia suggested that she take a test for Ebola virus to rule it out and “set everybody’s mind at ease.”

Instead, she learned from her husband, David, that she had tested positive for the often-fatal virus.

Still absorbing the news, she stood up from her bed, and David Writebol came towards her to give her a hug. But Nancy Writebol, knowing she could spread the infection to her husband of 40 years, held up both of her hands to keep him away.

“It’s going to be OK,” she assured him. “It’s going to be OK.”

That’s the scene Nancy Writebol painted for reporters Wednesday during her first public appearance since she left an Atlanta hospital. She spoke from the Charlotte campus of SIM USA, the international mission group that sponsored the Writebols’ work in Liberia.

On Aug. 19, she was discharged from Emory University Hospital, where she had been treated in an isolation unit along with Dr. Kent Brantly, a friend and fellow missionary who also contracted Ebola in Liberia. He was released two days later. Doctors declared them cured of the disease and no longer infectious.

When she started feeling ill on July 22, Nancy Writebol said she thought she had malaria, which she had contracted once before in Liberia.

But the day she took the Ebola test, she said her husband returned home from the hospital and said: “I need to tell you a few things.” First, he told her that Brantly, a missionary with Boone-based Samaritan’s Purse, had tested positive for Ebola.

“My heart sank,” Nancy Writebol recalled, her voice quavering. “Kent is not only a colleague, he’s a dear friend.”

Then he told her about her own positive result. “I had no clue what was going to happen,” she said. “Of course I knew what the outcome could be. And yet there was no fear. There was just this sense of the Lord’s peace and presence. And I thought whether I live or whether I die, it’s gonna be OK.”

There were many times when she thought she wouldn’t survive Ebola.

In early August, as she was about to be evacuated from Monrovia to Atlanta on a specially equipped plane, she recalled lying on a stretcher, wearing a white protective suit, and being accompanied by health-care workers also in protective gear.

After she said goodbye to her husband, one of the doctors assured her, “Nancy, you’re going home. We’ll take really good care of you.” But she recalled thinking: “I don’t even know if I’m going to make it to the U.S. I don’t even know if I’m going to see my dear husband again. ... There were some very dark days.”

On Wednesday, as a smiling Nancy Writebol appeared with her husband at SIM headquarters, they were saddened by the news that another colleague has become infected as the Ebola outbreak continues in West Africa.

Dr. Rick Sacra, 51, a missionary from the Boston area, tested positive for Ebola on Monday, according to SIM President Bruce Johnson.

Johnson said Sacra volunteered to go to Liberia to help staff the SIM-sponsored ELWA hospital in Liberia after Brantly and Nancy Writebol became ill. Sacra was treating obstetrics patients in an area separate from the Ebola isolation unit, where he is now a patient.

“This news was disheartening,” Johnson said. “But it does not dampen our resolve to help the people of Liberia.” On the same day he learned of Sacra’s infection, he also found out that 12 Ebola patients had “walked out of our Ebola care center, having beaten that disease.” Another SIM doctor is on his way to Liberia to help care for Sacra and run the hospital, Johnson said.

Both Nancy Writebol and Brantly received scarce doses of an experimental drug called ZMapp. But no one knows if that aided their recovery because it has never been tested in humans. When asked if Sacra might also receive the drug, Johnson said his understanding is that “there is no more ZMapp in the world.” He also said he does not know whether Sacra will be evacuated to the United States for treatment.

‘Joy to be’ in Liberia

On Wednesday, as she stood before the microphones at SIM, Nancy Writebol stayed close to her husband. She smiled and sometimes laughed as she told the story of her journey since the positive Ebola test. David Writebol kept his arm around her waist as he introduced his “beautiful” wife and thanked God for saving her life.

Acknowledging that many have wondered why she and her husband would volunteer in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak, Nancy Writebol was emphatic. “It was God’s call,” she said. “I have to tell you that it was a joy to be there. ... It was a wonderful place to work and to serve.”

She called it a privilege to work at the ELWA hospital “during this difficult time of Ebola.” She said she helped dress the doctors and nurses in protective gear before they entered the isolation unit and then helped decontaminate them when they left “to make sure those suits were coming off properly.”

Health officials have said they do not know how she contracted the virus, but that she was following proper infection control protocols.

A simple, ‘wonderful’ shower

After she was transferred to Emory, Nancy Writebol said doctors at one point told her husband and her two sons that, because of the pain in her feet and legs, she might not be able to walk, at least not without therapy.

But one morning, Nancy Writebol said she felt “tired of laying in bed” and tired of sponge baths. She sat up and decided to go to the bathroom to take a shower. With the help of a nurse, she did.

“Oh, that shower was wonderful,” she said. “Every day from that point, I was able, sometimes with help and sometimes not, to get up and walk. Every day there were just small, small signs of progression.”

She praised the five doctors and 21 nurses on the Emory team that cared for her and Brantly. “They were amazing people. And just a lot of fun to be around, too – if you have to be in the hospital.”

The Writebols thanked many, from health-care workers in Liberia and Atlanta to friends and strangers from around the world who prayed for them and sent cards. They asked for continued prayers for the people of West Africa, where more than 3,000 have been infected with Ebola and more than 1,500 have died.

“I am so happy that this beautiful woman is still with me,” said David Writebol, who had been separated from his wife for about two weeks while she was in Atlanta and he was in quarantine. He was released Aug. 17, having never developed symptoms of Ebola infection.

David Writebol said he and his wife will continue to enjoy “a season of rest and recuperation” and are “looking forward to what God has for us in our next mission.” He did not say whether that would include a return to Liberia.

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