For Dr. Kent Brantly, the experience of nearly dying more than two years ago from the Ebola virus seems like a lifetime ago.
While it’s no longer at the forefront of his mind, there are reminders almost daily for Brantly and his wife, Amber.
“It is hard to believe that that all really happened to us,” Brantly said. “I mean, Amber and I really look at each other often and say ‘Can you believe this is real? I really almost died?’ ”
Brantly would become the face of Ebola for many in the United States, writing a book, appearing at the White House and speaking around the country. By the time the outbreak centered in west Africa ended, 11,323 Ebola deaths and 28,646 cases had occurred, according to the World Health Organization.
It even came to Texas when Thomas Eric Duncan died on Oct. 8, 2014, at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas after traveling from Liberia.
Brantly, 35, quietly returned to practicing medicine in Fort Worth about a year ago. He sees patients at a JPS community health clinic, teaches family medicine residents and works one day a week in labor and delivery at John Peter Smith Hospital.
An Indiana native and graduate of Abilene Christian University, he was a JPS resident before heading to Africa.
His experience in Liberia, where he worked for nine months as a doctor for the Christian relief agency Samaritan’s Purse has helped shape his outlook for treating patients locally and around the world.
At one point, Brantly thought he was going to die after contracting the virus in July 2014.
On the ninth day after he became sick, Brantly’s breathing had become labored and he wasn’t sure how long he could survive.
“I was lying in my bed in Liberia, struggling to breathe and I looked at the nurse, who was standing beside my bed and said in between gasps and rigors, shaking — ‘I don’t think I can keep this us up very much longer and I don’t know how you’re going to breathe for me when I quit breathing,’ ” Brantly said.
“Because they had no way. There was no ventilator. I don’t think they even had a mask with a bag to ventilate me temporarily if I had quit breathing,” he said.
Hours later, his situation would dramatically improve after he received the experimental drug ZMapp.
“I had a pretty dramatic response to that first dose,” Brantly said. “I was in that position of struggling to breathe, thinking I’m going to die of respiratory failure in the next few hours, to being stable that night — not better but stable —and I was evacuated the next day.”
He would continue to get better after being flown to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta where physicians helped him to recover by carefully replacing fluids hed had lost to repeated rounds of diarrhea.
“I wouldn’t say that I knew I was going to make it until I had been at Emory for several days,” Brantly said. “When my appetite came back, when I wanted to eat something, I thought, ‘OK this is good.’ ”
Brantly said his health is fine and he draws on his experience in Liberia to teach the message of caring for others, whether it’s his patients in Tarrant County or the ones he treated in West Africa.
“There are innumerable lessons we could draw from that experience,” Brantly said. “The one I have tried to preach the most is choosing compassion over fear. I think that, at its core, is the most important lesson that this experience has illustrated.
“I talk about that from the perspective of my religious faith, the teachings of Jesus to love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Robert Earley, president and chief executive officer of the JPS Health Network, said the legacy of Ebola has changed the way patients are treated when they come to the JPS Emergency Department or one of the clinics.
“You’re going to be asked, ‘Where have you been? What symptoms are you facing?’ ” Earley said. “You’re going to have a series of questions asked today that you weren’t asked five years ago.”
Brantly isn’t alone in going overseas. Each year, one or two residency graduates travel to a foreign country to work full time, according to JPS, and another half-dozen will take part in mission trips. Graduates include Dr. Darin Portnoy, vice president of the International Board of Doctors Without Borders.
“I could not have any greater respect for doctors like Dr. Brantly, not only for their humanitarian efforts, but for the medical knowledge they bring back to JPS,” Earley said.
Brantly said another outbreak, whether it’s malaria, Ebola or the Zika virus, could show up at any time so hospitals like John Peter Smith must remain vigilant.
“One of the lessons we learned is our interconnectedness, that anything happening somewhere around the world — any epidemic, disaster, humanitarian crisis — it can show up at our doorstep in the blink of an eye and we have to be prepared for that,” Brantly said.
Brantly said he sees JPS as “ the safety net” for those in need and values helping his patients through difficult times.
“Many of our patients don’t have access to care anywhere else,” Brantly said. “And just like medicine anywhere else, I get to walk through life with people in the midst sometimes of their most difficult and challenging circumstances they’ve faced — a terminal diagnosis, bad news, poor prognosis and also the most joyful times with people — like the birth of a new baby.”
To some of his patients, he’s just a familiar face. But some recognize him and bring up his battle of more than two years ago. Brantly said all of the responses have been positive and many have said they prayed for him.
“I have patients in the clinic occasionally who say, ‘Where do I know you from?’ or “I’ve seen you on TV,’” Brantly said. “And sometimes I have patients who I got to take care of as a resident and they show up in my clinic and put two and two together and they say, ‘I saw you on TV and I told everybody that’s my doctor.’ ”
That’s understandable after he graced the cover of Time magazine and wrote a book with his wife, Amber, Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us Into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic.
He may find more people recognizing him again next year when a documentary Facing Darkness is shown across the country for one-night only on March 30.
Brantly says he hopes it inspires people to get involved — not just in West Africa but in places like Iraq and Syria.
Samaritan’s Purse is setting up an emergency field hospital to deal with those fleeing Mosul in Northern Iraq. Brantly hopes some doctors will heed the call to work in the hospital in the coming months.
“I hope that our voice is heard not only pointing at West Africa but I hope our voice is heard pointing to a need all over the world,” Brantly said. “What’s happening in Aleppo right now is devastating. It is a catastrophe of the greatest magnitude and we need to be paying attention.
“We need to not just turn a blind eye.”
Will Brantly ever return to Liberia or some other place as a medical missionary? He won’t rule it out.
For now, his work in Fort Worth is rewarding but eventually he wants to head overseas again.
“I hope we get to back to that work, whether it’s disaster response or what we were setting out to do, which was to live lives of quiet service among people of great need,” Brantly said.
“Right now, we’re trying to do that among the people of Tarrant County.”