Former JPS doctor with Ebola has a new mission

Greg Lacour and Caroline Chen (c) 2014, Bloomberg News. Just two weeks after Kent Brantly, the first person to be treated on U.S. soil for Ebola, walked out of Emory University Hospital cured of the deadly virus, he received a call.

Another doctor, Rick Sacra, was infected. Would he be willing to donate some of his blood?

“I said, ‘I would give Rick Sacra my right arm if it would help him,’ ” Brantly told reporters at an event in North Carolina.

Brantly, 33, who was infected with Ebola while working as a missionary doctor in Liberia, became a household name on Aug. 2 as cable-news outlets showed him walking, covered in protective gear, into the entrance at Emory in Atlanta. Brantly now says his new mission is to raise awareness about the Ebola outbreak that has infected more than 13,000 people in West Africa, killing almost 5,000. Brantly was a doctor at JPS in Fort Worth prior to going to work for the World Health Organization. 

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“If I were still in Liberia, I would be treating 50 patients in an Ebola treatment unit, and here, with this platform that I’ve been given, hopefully my message can have an effect that will impact and help thousands,” he said Wednesday in an interview.

Brantly continues to share his antibody-enriched blood with other patients. While the use of survivor’s blood isn’t a proven therapy against Ebola, the World Health Organization urged in September it be used as an experimental treatment. Survivors develop antibodies that recognize the virus and, in theory, donating some to a sick patient may help fight the disease.

A month after giving his blood to Sacra, Brantly was driving across the country with his family when he was called again. Ashoka Mukpo, a cameraman for NBC, had been admitted with Ebola at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha and his blood type — A positive — matched Brantly’s.

Brantly stopped the car in Kansas City, Missouri, at a local blood bank, where his blood was drawn and sent to Nebraska. Several days later, he visited nurse Nina Pham, a graduate of Texas Christian University’s nursing program, to repeat the process.

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Brantly said he doesn’t mind continuing to be a source of blood for Ebola patients.

“I hope and pray there is no more need for convalescent serum treatment for Ebola in the United States,” he said. “But if there is, I will definitely be willing.”

Brantly’s heightened profile may also be helping generate donations to Samaritan’s Purse, the charity that had sent him to West Africa. On Thursday, the group sent a chartered Boeing 747 stuffed with 90,000 pounds of supplies to Liberia.

“The money we have raised for Ebola has been not as much as we have raised for hurricanes or tornadoes and those kinds of things, but at the same time the awareness of Samaritan’s Purse has gone up, so we have seen a rise in income,” Chief Executive Officer Franklin Graham said in an interview.

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Graham said he hasn’t kept track lately and couldn’t say exactly how much donations had increased.

“I had one gentleman call up and said, ‘Franklin, I just don’t know how to spend it. I’m just going to give it to you,’ and he wrote a check for a million dollars,” Graham recounted. “Then he called back a few weeks later, and said, ‘You know what, I want to do it again.’ That’s kind of unusual.”

The heightened awareness of Ebola has cut both ways, also creating a climate of fear in cities like New York and Dallas and leading to a debate over whether people at risk of infection should be quarantined. Brantly called on lawmakers to do away with 21-day quarantine requirements for health workers returning from West Africa, and instead provide incentives for more doctors to volunteer in the affected countries.

“If we’re going to treat the volunteers who go over there harshly or like criminals, then it callouses us and removes our sense of compassion for the people we need to be helping right now,” he said.

Brantly is living with his family in north Texas, and has taken on the title of “medical missions adviser” for Samaritan’s Purse, according to Todd Shearer, a spokesman for the group. This is a new position created for Brantly so he can travel around the country raising awareness about the Ebola crisis.

Brantly will act as an adviser for “the foreseeable future,” Shearer said, though Brantly told reporters that he hopes to return someday to work in Liberia.

Part of his personal mission is “to dispel the fear around Ebola,” he said. Brantly recounted a conversation with a taxi driver in New York City on the day that Craig Spencer was diagnosed and isolated at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan.

“I was trying to reassure that taxi driver, ‘You have zero risk of getting Ebola.’ He said, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘Do you know the guy who’s in the hospital?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Did you give him a hug today?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then you have no risk of getting Ebola.’ “