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Ebola survivor shares his story at Abilene homecoming

Dr. Kent Brantly doesn’t want the spotlight on him.

It should be on the thousands of people who are dying of the Ebola virus, which “strips the dignity from people while taking their lives,” he said Friday at his alma mater, Abilene Christian University.

But Brantly can’t escape the attention of being the first person known to have Ebola in the United States — and of surviving.

Brantly, a medical missionary to West Africa who did his residency at a Fort Worth hospital, is using his unexpected public platform to encourage others to replace their fear of the virus with compassion for Ebola victims.

“Our neighbors are the people in West Africa who are suffering far beyond what we can understand or fathom,” Brantly said. “I assure you, the reality on the ground in West Africa is worse than the worst report you’ve seen.”

“Instead of being consumed by fear” of the small chance of the disease spreading in the U.S., he said, “we need to be consumed by love and compassion” for the victims and their families in West Africa.

Brantly, 33, was working with the organization Samaritan’s Purse in Liberia when the deadly virus broke out in April. As director of a hospital’s Ebola clinic, he treated many of the thousands of patients until July 23 when he learned he had the disease.

At that point, he said, all but one of his Ebola patients had died.

He was flown back to the United States for treatment at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where he recovered and was released on Aug. 21.

His wife, Amber, and two young children had come back to the United States before he got sick.

Since then, Brantly has donated blood to other Ebola patients in hopes that it will help them resist the disease, has spoken at a joint Senate hearing on the outbreak of “one of the most feared viruses in the world” in West Africa and met President Barack Obama.

‘Thrilled to be alive’

On Friday, Kent and Amber Brantly, “ordinary people thrown into an extraordinary circumstances,” were welcomed warmly at the university about 150 miles west of Fort Worth during homecoming events.

“It is a great honor, privilege and joy to be here,” he said as he began his first speech. “I am particularly thrilled to be alive.”

Brantly spoke at the school’s traditional chapel service, and he and his wife sat down for two public question-and-answer discussions on campus Friday. Several themes emerged in the conversations, including faith, fear, compassion for other Ebola patients and their responsibility in the public eye.

“I was facing death,” Brantly said. “I prayed to God, ‘I know you can save me, but even if you don’t, I will be faithful to you.’ ”

Kent Brantly, who graduated from ACU in 2003 with a degree in biblical studies, and Amber Brantly, who graduated in 2006 with a nursing degree, said they want the media attention to focus on the outbreak in West Africa, and for others to show love and compassion for their neighbors in need.

“This is not about me,” he said. “This is about our great, loving, compassionate God who has called us to love our neighbors. This is about the more than 3,800 people who have died from the Ebola virus disease in West Africa.”

What’s next?

Kent Brantly expressed his “heartbreak” for the family of Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan, who died in Dallas on Wednesday. “My deepest sympathies go out to them,” he said

Kent Brantly also talked about how he became interested in mission work and how that led him to West Africa. He discussed his thought process about using an experimental treatment that had never been used on a human before — “It wasn’t that big of a decision. I knew that I was probably going to die.”

Amber Brantly spoke about being unable to help her husband when he was ill. She said it will be harder to go back to West Africa — should they feel led to return as medical missionaries — knowing what they know now.

To the question “What’s next?” Kent Brantly answered, “We don’t know.”

He said he is focusing on spending time with his kids, 3 and 5, as his recovery continues.

The couple will continue to share their message with others, though.

“It’s my responsibility, because I survived, because I’m alive, to do something with that life I’ve been given,” Kent Brantly said.

Before going to work in Africa, Brantly was a four-year resident in family medicine at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth. The family attended Southside Church of Christ.

This report includes material from The Associated Press and the Star-Telegram archives.

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