Long before Dr. Kent Brantly put his life at risk caring for patients in the midst of the world’s worst Ebola outbreak, the married father of two had a habit of helping others. At the Southside Church of Christ in Fort Worth, “he and his wife [Amber] coordinated taking meals to church members when they were out of the hospital or had a baby,” says Kent Smith, a church elder. “If anybody needed help on a Saturday, he was available. He’s selfless.”
So it actually came as no shock when, a year ago, Brantly, 33, announced to his childhood congregation in Indianapolis that he was moving with his family to Liberia to work as a medical missionary for the Christian aid group Samaritan’s Purse. “God directed my path,” he said in his July 2013 sermon. “My heart leaps with excitement and joy knowing that he has called me.” Says Smith: “He never voiced any fear.”
Now, along with fellow aid worker Nancy Writebol, 59, Brantly is fighting for his life after contracting the very virus he had hoped to help others battle. Transported in a self-contained chamber aboard a Gulfstream jet and outfitted in a protective biohazard suit, Brantly was taken to Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital Aug. 2. He is being treated, with Writebol expected to arrive Aug. 5, on a separate floor in the hospital’s isolation unit—one of only four specially equipped to treat Ebola in the country. Hospital and health officials have taken pains to prevent public panic. “We do not believe any health-care worker, any patient or visitor to our facility is in any way at risk of acquiring this infection,” Emory infectious disease specialist Dr. Bruce Ribner told reporters on Aug. 1. But across the country, hospitals are on high alert: On Aug. 4 New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital placed a man who had recently traveled to West Africa in isolation after he came to the emergency room with a fever and stomach problems. (Doctors were awaiting test results at press time.)
While the experts have turned to science, Brantly has looked to God. “I’m praying fervently that God will help me survive this disease,” he wrote in a July 28 e-mail to a friend, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. That faith has its roots in his Indianapolis childhood, where the high school soccer player grew up hearing stories from his missionary aunts and uncles and aspired to be like his dad, a physician. “I looked around at my options and decided I needed some tangible skills to use in God’s service,” Brantly said in his sermon. It was on a medical mission to Central America where he met Amber, 30, then a pre-nursing student, with whom he now has kids Ruby, 5, and Stephen, 3.
Now Amber and Kent’s family and friends are praying he’ll pull through. “He was in good spirits,” Amber said in an Aug. 3 statement after visiting her husband from behind a protective window at Emory. Brantly got two doses of the experimental serum ZMapp and was steadily improving each day after his arrival. Smith feels certain that Brantly—who insisted the first dose of the experimental serum be given to Writebol in Liberia—is thinking of his stricken friend and the patients left behind. “In the early days after being diagnosed with the virus, he specifically asked us to pray for Nancy and to pray for the other people in West Africa who are fighting this disease,” Smith says. “He cares about other people more than he cares about himself.”