When Kent Brantly, M.D., (’03) and his wife, Amber (Carroll ’06) told their young children they were moving back to Africa five years after Kent nearly lost his life to Ebola, a tangle of emotions emerged – sad, excited, happy, nervous.
Ten-year-old Ruby describes it by saying “most of me is excited,” said her mom, Amber, a registered nurse. Stephen – now 8 – was only 3 years old when his father became sick, so his memories are not as vivid as his sister’s.
“I think they’re excited for the change and adventure of it,” Amber said, adding that she and Kent feel the same way. “[The children] have a lot of feelings about it, which is good – we do, too. We’ve had several goodbyes here already that have been really hard. So we’re all sad and excited and happy and a little nervous and all of the in-betweens, too.”
The Brantlys will move to Zambia in September, where Kent will work at Mukinge Mission Hospital, a 200-bed facility serving as a regional hospital to a remote area of the south-central African nation. They will partner with Christian Health Service Corps and will serve alongside Kent’s cousin, Stephen Snell, M.D., and his wife, Amy, also medical missionaries who had worked at the Zambian hospital from 2013 to 2015 and were eager to return.
“Stephen and I are the same age, and we’ve talked about and dreamed about doing this work together since medical school,” Kent said.
The move will mark a renewal of the Brantlys’ original plan to serve God as medical missionaries, a plan interrupted when Kent contracted Ebola in July 2014 while treating patients in a Liberian hospital during a post-residency program with Samaritan’s Purse.
Kent, who earned a Bible degree from ACU before deciding to become a doctor, became the first Ebola patient to receive the experimental drug ZMapp and the first to be flown back to the U.S. for treatment. He underwent three weeks of supportive care in isolation at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and was released Aug. 21, 2014, to the cheers of his Emory care team, family members and friends.
The avalanche of media coverage gave the couple a platform to bring attention to the plight of Ebola patients in West Africa, where more than 11,325 lost their lives between 2014 and 2016, according to the World Health Organization. In the weeks after Kent’s release from Emory, the Brantlys met with President Barack Obama, made their first public speaking appearance at their alma mater, Abilene Christian University, and Kent appeared on the cover of Time as the magazine named “The Ebola Fighters” as its 2014 Person of the Year. In 2015, the Brantlys chronicled their experience in a book, Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us Into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic.
Over the past four years, Kent and Amber have tried to keep a low profile, turning their attention to serving the Fort Worth community where they made their home and concentrating on healing, both physically and emotionally.
Although their location had changed, each found ways to continue serving those less fortunate.
Kent returned to practicing medicine, treating low-income patients at a community health clinic, teaching family medicine residents, and working in labor and delivery at John Peter Smith Hospital, which is located in a ZIP code, he notes, with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation.
“There’s great medical need right here in Fort Worth,” he said.
Amber found a niche volunteering with refugees in the community through World Relief and joined a group called Be the Bridge, which works toward racial equality, reconciliation and forgiveness. The Brantlys moved into an apartment complex that had a large refugee population “because that’s the kind of community we wanted to live in,” Kent said.
“It has been really great and full of blessing and gratitude and thankfulness and enjoyment and friendships,” Kent said, speaking of life after Ebola. “And it has also been really hard with a lot of grief and loss of several dear friends and family members who have died over the last five years.”
Though Kent’s physical healing was easy to track, the couple’s emotional healing took longer. Part of that healing process involved professional counseling.
“We tend to be so surprised when terrible things happen to us – even Christians,” Amber said. “Our counselor particularly helped us develop our theology around pain and suffering and going through our trauma, and the counseling guided our next steps these last years, to love immigrants and refugees and to reach out across racial boundaries in our community and to live intentionally where we are.
“God put us back here, and we weren’t happy about it, but there was a reason – to use the opportunities and time God gave us to do that. I hope we’ve done this time some justice, and I’m looking forward to the next turn of the page,” she said.
One of the messages Amber would like people to hear is that counseling is OK.
“I don’t think as Kent and Amber that we would still be OK without the help of counselors and pastors and supportive parents and siblings and wonderful friendships,” she said. “I think we could call ourselves blessed – the word has become kind of cheesy – but we truly are.”
“And not because I survived,” Kent added, “but because of the relationships around us. It really occurred to me again today that, yes, we experienced a very traumatic event in our lives and our family, and it was a very public experience. But we are fully aware that aside from the publicity of it, it was really not a unique experience. We don’t own the market on suffering.”
Although the trauma of Kent’s illness has receded in their minds, the near-death experience is now an integral part of their family’s shared story.
“I don’t think a day has gone by in the last five years when I have not thought about Ebola in some way,” Kent said. “It’s not a vivid, raw PTSD kind of thing – we’re not still living in that. But it has left an indelible mark on us, and it will forever be a point in time we look back to as a major mile marker in our family. It comes up in conversation for us – for me and other family and coworkers or the kids – it comes up in some way, or we talk about it in some way, all the time.”
For the first couple of years after Kent’s recovery, it was a common occurrence for people to stop him on the streets and ask about his experience with Ebola. People rarely recognize and approach him now, he said.
“We had a garage sale this morning and probably had 150 people stop by,” Kent said, “and one lady asked me if we were moving out of this neighborhood and buying a new house, and we said, ‘No we’re moving to Zambia.’ We had a little paper on the table about donating to our mission in Zambia. And she looked at that paper and she looked at me and said, ‘Did you write a book? Are you that guy? Weren’t you over there when they had Ebola? I have your book on my shelf at home.’ ”
“That still happens occasionally,” Amber said, “but not like four and five years ago. We couldn’t go anywhere without that. It wasn’t ever hurtful or rude in any way. It just always surprised us. You just never expect people to recognize you at the pancake house and pick up your tab.”
In recent months, Kent has given several presentations about his decision to go back onto the mission field.
“I talk about how we had that platform we tried to be faithful with for a couple of years, but we also tried to settle into our community here and find ways to serve. For a year or two, one of my primary messages was trying to motivate more help for the people of West Africa because the Ebola outbreak was still going on. And then when that outbreak ended, I continued to have opportunities to have a voice, and we tried to share a message of choosing compassion over fear.”
And compassion still trumps fear in the Brantlys’ minds as they prepare to return to Africa.
“What we don’t have is some of the naiveté we probably took with us to Liberia the first time around,” Kent said. “That lady who recognized me at the garage sale asked, ‘Aren’t you scared to go back?’ And I said, ‘Well, you can find things to be scared of anywhere. And sure, there are a lot of dangers moving our family to a place like Zambia that you wouldn’t face here. But we’re also escaping some of the dangers here that we wouldn’t have to face there, like materialism and self-centeredness, and all kinds of dangers we’re oblivious to that we face everyday here.’
“So we’ve tried to share that message and serve at our community here in Fort Worth, but that whole time, we’ve wanted to go back to the kind of work we set out to do. Now we have an opportunity to do that,” he said.
The opportunity came about in a phone call from Lance Plyler, M.D., director of World Medical Mission, the medical arm of the evangelical humanitarian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse, with whom Kent worked in Liberia.
He told Kent about a hospital in Zambia that was losing a missionary couple and asked if the Brantlys and Snells would consider going there.
“For the last almost five years, we’ve been looking for an opportunity to return to the mission field, going as far as taking a couple of survey trips to investigate opportunities. None of those panned out,” Kent said.
This time was different. The details began to fall into place, and the Brantlys felt emotionally ready.
They have been intentional about commemorating every anniversary of Kent’s illness with family and friends. “We’ve done it differently each year,” Kent said. “A year ago in August, around the fourth anniversary of my illness, we had a very cathartic sort of emotional experience where we came out of it saying, ‘I think we really are ready to move forward now.’ ”
They began investigating the opportunity at Mukinge Hospital. At the same time, they were building a relationship with Christian Health Service Corps and discovering that organization seemed like a good fit for them long term, Kent said.
“One of the things we really appreciate about them is they are ecumenical; they welcome anyone who follows Jesus and wants to partner together in kingdom work. We align with that really well,” he said. “They also place a big emphasis on doing things with excellence, like providing high-level medical care that meets or exceeds international standards and guidelines set by the World Health Organization and by different countries’ ministries of health.”
Kent’s approach as a medical missionary is to ask, “What are the priorities of the ministry of health here and what are their goals and objectives, and how can we fit into that? What do we have to offer?”
“It’s sort of a posture of humility to recognize that we’re not the end-all-be-all,” he said. “That’s really important as Christians and also when you’re practicing medicine in a country other than your own.”
Moving to Zambia will take another leap of faith. The Brantlys have never visited the place that will become their new home. But they had never set foot in Liberia before moving there, either.
“We talked about it, prayed together, fasted and discussed it, and the doors have just really opened,” Kent said.
They do know it will be a very different experience than Liberia.
“In Liberia, we lived on the coast and on the outskirts of a major city, an urban area. We could drive to a restaurant for dinner any night we wanted,” Kent said.
The Mukinge Hospital is in a landlocked country in southern Africa, and the hospital is in a very rural location. “There’s a village a mile down the road, a town that has markets and stores, but the nearest city with a supermarket is two-and-a-half hours away,” Kent said. “That will change our style of living, having to plan things out well in advance.”
The medical settings also are very different – a 200-bed hospital in Zambia compared to the 50-bed hospital in Liberia, and they will be working with fewer doctors and resources.
“In Liberia, we had three American family doctors, one American surgeon, one Liberian surgeon and four or five African doctors for that 50-bed hospital,” Kent said. “In Zambia, at the 200-bed hospital, there’s one American family doctor, one Zambian doctor and one surgeon from New Zealand.”
Despite the challenges, the Brantlys feel a strong pull to the mission field.
“It’s painful to see the suffering in so much of the world and right now,” Kent said. “The second largest Ebola outbreak in the history of the world is happening in DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo]. You may see an occasional headline that there’s Ebola in Uganda, but more than 1,700 people have died, and there have been more than 2,600 cases since last August. And we just don’t pay attention.
“And it’s not just that we want the world to care more about Ebola,” he added. “It’s that the world is so broken, and there are so many people who are hurting and suffering, and that’s just one example of it on a big scale. If it doesn’t affect us – whatever we identify as ‘us’ – then we are quick to ignore it or we just remain oblivious to it. I think that’s part of what drives us to want to go to a place like Zambia, not because we are the solution to any of the world’s problems, but because there is a place – or lots of places – where people are hurting and suffering and in need, specifically in our case for medical care, and there’s no one there to provide it or too few people to provide it.
“When I leave [Fort Worth], they’ll pretty quickly find someone else to fill my spot,” he said. “Right now, there are only three doctors in that 200-bed hospital in Zambia. And not a lot of people lining up to join them.”
Kent recently wrote an endorsement for a book written by another medical missionary, Eric McLaughin, M.D., who also did a post-residency program with Samaritan’s Purse. The title is Promises in the Dark: Walking With Those in Need Without Losing Heart.
“It’s really good,” Kent said. “He’s writing it from his experience with eight or 10 years as a medical missionary in Kenya and Burundi, and it resonated deeply with me. He talks about how the way to not lose heart when you’re dealing with suffering in the world is to know the promises of God and to trust the one who is making those promises.”
The Brantlys have a similar philosophy when it comes to serving a broken world.
“I’m grateful to God for saving my life,” Kent said. “I want to continue to live faithfully to the calling he’s given me, to serve the poor and have compassion for people in need and to participate in God’s work of making all things new.”
Below, see features about Kent and Amber Brantly in the Spring-Summer 2015 issue of ACU Today magazine.