U.S. missionary doctor with Ebola said to be in good spirits

A male obstetrician who did not work in the Ebola ward has been infected with the virus. Authorities have not determined if he will be transported back to the U.S., like the other two Americans who contracted the virus. (Reuters)

The death toll from the Ebola epidemic in West Africa has surpassed 1,900 people, the World Health Organization announced Wednesday. More people have now died in this epidemic than in all previous Ebola outbreaks combined.

“No one, even outbreak responders, (has) ever seen anything like it,” said WHO’s director-general Margaret Chan, speaking at a news briefing. She called the Ebola epidemic “the largest, and most severe, and most complex we have ever seen in the nearly 40-year history of this disease.”

Meanwhile, Rick Sacra, the American missionary doctor who tested positive for Ebola on Monday in Liberia, is in good spirits and talking on the telephone and e-mailing with his wife in Boston regularly, SIM USA officials said Wednesday. But they cautioned that the disease is unpredictable.

“It’s very much up and down. You may feel good one day and the next day feel horrible,” said Bruce Johnson, president of the global missionary group. SIM officials said they could not offer a prognosis.

Sacra, the medical director of the organization’s ELWA Hospital in Monrovia, decided to return to Liberia after another missionary doctor and another volunteer became ill with Ebola, Johnson said. Sacra had been working in the hospital for about a month, most recently caring for obstetrics patients.

Johnson said the organization is “exploring all opportunities and options,” including a possible return to the United States. Sacra, 51, developed a fever Friday that lasted through the weekend, Johnson said. Sacra isolated himself, and on Monday, after testing positive for Ebola, the doctor moved himself into the hospital’s isolation unit, which is separate from the main building. He is being cared for by the hospital’s doctors and nurses, many of whom he trained, Johnson said.

Johnson said that he had spoken with Sacra’s wife, Debbie, and that she was “holding up very well.” He added, “They knew the risks going in, and they also knew the protocols that were in place, and Rick was following those.” They were aware that he could contract Ebola, Johnson said.

Sacra is a longtime doctor with the organization. The couple joined in the late 1980s and have served in Liberia, where Sacra was country director.

The doctor is the fourth American to be diagnosed with the hemorrhagic disease that has killed more than half the people who have become infected during this epidemic. Another doctor, Kent Brantly, and a missionary volunteer, Nancy Writebol, who also were working at ELWA Hospital, were treated with an experimental medication and brought back to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where they recovered. A Liberian American man, Patrick Sawyer, died in July after traveling to Nigeria.

In her first interview since her release from the hospital last month, Writebol said she had some “very, very dark days.” At one point, when she was being transported from Liberia back to the United States and saying goodbye to her husband, she wondered whether she would ever see him again.

But her faith kept her going, she said. “The Lord came and said, ‘Am I enough?’ and I said, ‘Yes, Lord, you are enough.’ ”

Writebol was initially diagnosed and treated for malaria when she began to feel sick on July 22. Only after finishing that medication was she tested for Ebola. She attributed her recovery to a combination of the experimental treatment, high-quality medical care and her faith.

The Ebola outbreak over time

Writebol, who had been unable to walk because of pain in her legs and feet, said one of her best moments was the day she was able to get out of her hospital bed at Emory and walk to the bathroom for a shower. “Oh, that shower was wonderful,” she said.

Brantly, in his first interview since being released from Emory last month, told NBC’s Matt Lauer that at one point during his illness, he had become so weak that he didn’t think he could hold on much longer. Brantly was working with another Christian humanitarian organization, Samaritan’s Purse.

“I felt like I was about to die,” he said. “And I said to the nurse who was taking care of me, ‘I’m sick. I have no reserve. And I don’t know how long I can keep this up.’ ”

“I thought, I’m not gonna be able to continue breathing this way. And they had no way to breathe for me if I had to quit breathing,” he continued.

Abby Ohlheiser and Abby Phillip contributed to this report.

Lena H. Sun is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on health.
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