Nearly a year ago, Dr. Kent Brantly became the first American Ebola patient to return to the United States for treatment during the West African outbreak. The world worried as he arrived in Atlanta in critical condition, but breathed a collective sigh of relief when Brantly was declared virus free just three weeks later.
He survived an epidemic that has killed more than 11,260 people, and which continues taking lives.
Brantly, 34, brought the epidemic to life in the Western Hemisphere, and highlighted the need for help in Africa, his wife, Amber, said.
“He put a face to it,” Amber told FoxNews.com. “I think without his recovery, the attention couldn’t have been drawn to West Africa.”
Brantly could not have expected he would stare death in the face when he, Amber, and their two children moved to Liberia in October 2013 to work on a medical mission. But within eight months, he confronted Ebola’s life-taking effect in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.
The Ft. Worth, Texas resident was working with the Samaritan’s Purse Post-Residency Program and practicing general family medicine in hospitals. The Ebola outbreak began at the end of March 2014 in Guinea, West Africa, and quickly trickled into neighboring countries, including Sierra Leone, before reaching Liberia.
Doctors in Monrovia began preparing in March, immediately after hearing of the Ebola outbreak. They created a curriculum to initiate hands-on, experiential training for the entire hospital staff, and in less than three months they had their first patient.
“We felt very well prepared,” said Brantly.
Ready to treat the local patients, but perhaps not to treat himself.
After months of treating Ebola patients, Brantly woke up on the morning of July 23, 2014 feeling sick — with a fever which showed no signs of improving.
“I treated myself as if I had Ebola,” Brantly said. “But I held onto the hope that it was malaria, or dengue fever.”
Just three days later, he was diagnosed with Ebola and immediately called Amber— who had been evacuated back in the United States with their children when the first Ebola patient came to Brantly’s hospital.
“As soon as I answered, he told me. He knew I was waiting for the results, so he told me, ‘My test came back and it was positive,’ and what can you say?” Amber said.
The virus attacked Brantly’s body and he had severe bouts of diarrhea with no access to laboratory testing to monitor his vital nutrient levels or organ function.
Dr. John Fankhauser, a missionary doctor working with Brantly in Monrovia, suggested supplementing his fluids with potassium – something Brantly credits with ultimately saving his life.
“Had John not been giving me potassium, I very well may have died in Liberia,” Brantly said.
While Brantly’s family and friends eagerly awaited his return to the United States for treatment, many Americans harshly criticized the government’s decision to do so. The world had never seen an Ebola epidemic of this proportion and there was still so much medical professionals did not understand about treating the disease.
“We didn’t pay attention to the naysayers, we can’t take it personally. It wasn’t Kent, they don’t know Kent. It was Ebola,” Amber said.
Brantly arrived at Emory University Hospital’s biocontainment unit in Atlanta on August 1 in critical condition.
“I think coming to a facility where he could have round-the-clock nursing care … the supportive care that he needed, gave him so much more hope,” Amber said. “And I could see the relief on his face, even though he was still critical.”
Doctors at Emory were able to stabilize Brantly’s condition within the first week.
“My diarrhea lessened,” said Brantly. “It kind of started to become clear that I was, I was gonna make it.”
Brantly said his experience exposed the reality of living in a global community. The people living in West Africa still dealing with the outbreak are our neighbors, he said.
“Our lives impact one another, and so we have a responsibility to act,” he said. “We have to make a choice of how we’re going to respond.”
The couple wrote a book about the experience, “Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic,” that was published July 21. Through sharing their story, they hope to encourage others to wrestle with the difficult questions that accompany dealing with life’s challenges.
The Brantlys hope to return to West Africa soon.
“That’s the life we feel called to,” Kent said. “That’s what we would like to get back to doing.”