Ebola survivor Nancy Writebol: Don’t forget West Africa

Nancy Writebol helps dress health care workers as they prepare to work with Ebola patients in Monrovia, Liberia. Writebol was later infected with the disease and was the second American flown back to the United States for treatment.
Nancy Writebol helps dress health care workers as they prepare to work with Ebola patients in Monrovia, Liberia. Writebol was later infected with the disease and was the second American flown back to the United States for treatment. Courtesy

It’s something no one should have to tell the person they love.

But David Writebol had to tell his wife of 40 years.

They had both already seen the effects of Ebola. At first there were just reports from northern Liberia, which borders Guinea, where other missionaries were stationed.

By June, the hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, where Nancy Writebol worked part time, had seen its first Ebola patient.

Now, the hospital’s isolation beds were filling up, and she had Ebola.

“How do you look at the love of your life and say ‘I think we only have a few more days’?” said David Writebol.

“But God’s peace was present and we sensed that in a very real way. God was in control of that and he would take us through.”

‘A busy life’

The Writebols have two sons – one in Wichita and one in Spokane, Wash. – two “daughters-in-love,” and five grandchildren with another on the way.

They call Charlotte, N.C. home, but for the past 15 years, they’ve been missionaries in several countries: Five years in Ecuador, eight in Zambia and the last year and a half in Liberia.

While in Liberia, David worked as a technical services manager for the Serving In Mission (SIM) project Eternal Love Winning Africa, which has a radio station, school and hospital. Nancy was the personnel coordinator, helping new missionaries in the area get settled. She also was working part time in the hospital as a nurse’s assistant.

“We were having a normal life,” said David Writebol.

“A busy life. Very busy,” added Nancy Writebol.

And that was before Ebola.

When reports started coming in, edging closer from the north, the hospital began to ramp up its isolation unit. Fear started setting in among Liberians.

“You don’t live in that kind of a crisis without a constant thought of, if I’m out in the community, ‘Who has Ebola?’ ‘Who has symptoms that they’re not telling about?’ or ‘Who has been at a funeral and taken care of a dead body and now may be symptomatic from being at the funeral?’ There was great concern about what was happening,” said Nancy Writebol.

“There was denial. A lot of mistrust or distrust, even to foreign aid workers. There was a distrust of their own government and was this really true or was it made up. We were seeing a lot of that. A lot of fear. When (Doctors Without Borders) wanted to put up their isolation unit on our property, the community did not want it at all. They felt like we were bringing Ebola to them and they felt like the people that were decontaminating with sprayers were not spraying for decontamination but they were spraying with Ebola. There was just a lot of distrust.”

Despite the distrust, hundreds of beds, perhaps the largest isolation unit in Monrovia, were filling up.

Many patients were coming in too late.

In a country with more than 4.4 million people, there are about 50 native Liberian doctors, said Nancy Writebol. The country only recently ended its 15-year civil war.

“Their health care system was very weak, and even more so now,” said David Writebol.

“You look and watch and think somebody’s going to turn the corner and then when they don’t, that’s difficult,” Nancy Writebol added.

“Ebola has names, it has faces and it has families. There are many faces and many names that I could talk about and their families and watching them go through the process: For patients, in losing their dignity as they go through the disease and as it overtakes them, and for their families as they have to stand and watch.”

The Writebols helped other missionaries and other families with small children evacuate, still trying to keep same the level of services at the hospital. Despite the risk, they stayed.

“You just don’t turn your back and leave or run away when there’s difficulties,” said Nancy Writebol.

“In our service, we are just the hands and feet of Christ, to serve and to love and care for people as Christ would. And we just really believed that God’s word tells us to ‘go you unto all the world and preach the gospel.’ David and I both really believe that preaching is not just verbal. It’s action. And how do you tell people that you care about them and how do you share with them if you don’t do it in a way that’s tangible?”

‘Live or die’

As cases increased, Nancy Writebol worked full time in the hospital, dressing the doctors and nurses to go into the isolation units and decontaminating them as they came out.

She’s still not quite sure how she caught Ebola. There was one time during the decontamination process that sticks in her mind. There was also the close contact she had with a Liberian co-worker who at first thought he had Typhoid, but ended up having Ebola.

“It’s still very much just a mystery,” she said.

On July 22, she wasn’t feeling well. She had worked long hours for three weeks straight and felt like she had Malaria.

“I’d had Malaria once in the year that we were there and so I knew what that was like, and it was just so similar,” she said of the fever and aches.

The malaria test was positive, so she rested a few days, took medication, but wasn’t feeling better.

She took another malaria test. It was negative. So she was tested for Ebola.

On July 26, she was diagnosed.

David Writebol told his wife the news. He also told her about their friend, physician Kent Brantly, who worked at the same hospital and also had been diagnosed with the virus.

He thought about how the news would affect their two sons.

Their home was made into an isolation unit and David had to move out.

She could feel her body getting weaker and weaker.

“Most everything that I had seen in our patients was now happening in my own body. When you’re seeing patients and seeing them lose their dignity and then you start going through that.... I had no clue if I was going to live or die. That week, I don’t know that I remember a lot of what was going on. But as David had shared earlier, there was a great sense of peace.”

“I knew whether I lived or died, God would use that and it would be to his glory. That’s what we want for our lives, to honor and glorify the Lord in any situation.”

SIM and Samaritan’s Purse worked with the State Department to evacuate Nancy Writebol and Kent Brantly to Emory University in Atlanta by plane.

“When I said goodbye to David, when they got ready to evacuate me, I was probably at my lowest and not sure that I would survive the flight,” she said.

The couple, who had been married for 40 years, had to say goodbye through a window, with Nancy dressed in a full protective suit.

David Writebol had to figure out how to get back to the United States to see her again.

“It would be another two weeks basically before I could see her,” he said.

‘God saved me’

Nancy Writebol arrived at Emory University on Aug. 5.

Because there is no cure for Ebola, she received supportive care, including blood transfusions, IV hydration and the final dose of ZMapp, an experimental vaccine, which she believes helped stabilize her.

She was discharged – Ebola free – on Aug.19.

“I really believe that God saved me, but that God uses all of those things. The doctors and nurses, the prayers, He uses Zmapp, He uses supportive care – every one of those things He uses,” she said.

She is among just a handful of Americans who have had Ebola.

Last week, the U.S. had no cases of the virus after the clearance of physician Craig Spencer in New York City, who received plasma from Writebol full of antibodies for Ebola. The Associated Press reports that a surgeon from Sierra Leone who is a permanent resident of the U.S. is to be treated for the virus in Omaha.

In Africa, despite the high mortality rate of the disease, which is about 71 percent in the most recent outbreak, thousands of survivors face a different challenge: social stigma.

Orphaned children are not always taken care of by extended family, be it from fear of the disease or financial struggle, Writebol said. People have lost their jobs and been asked not to return.

Even back at home – well past the contagious stage – Writebol faces stigma. It likely stems from fear, she said.

“It’s really a strange feeling to either be uninvited somewhere or to have somebody put their hands up,” she said.

“Normally, I’m pretty outgoing, so if I’m going to meet somebody, I’m always going to shake their hand or give them a hug. I’ve learned I have to be a little more reserved now because there are some people that are just really afraid. It’s been interesting.”

Since she’s recovered, she’s tried to share her experience with as many people as possible.

“(I want) to raise the level of awareness of what is happening in the world, specifically in West Africa,” she said. “For so long, many times, we just put our heads in the sand and we’re not too concerned about what’s going on around us.”

“I think the greatest concern is still West Africa and what’s happening there. That’s what we want people to think about. When things begin to quiet down and there’s not a concern about it, for me, that raises a level of anxiety because we still know of the great need that is there and we don’t want people to close their eyes. There are still opportunities for doctors and nurses to volunteer and help and there’s also the opportunity for people who can’t go but want to help to be able to give.”

Writebol said she’s thankful the U.S. has responded and is building isolation units to help in West Africa.

But she is concerned about recent quarantine requirements of 21 days in the U.S., saying the restrictions can put a strain on the flow of volunteer nurses and doctors who want to go and help short term.

What’s next for the Writebols is yet to be determined.

They’ve considered going back to Liberia.

“We’re waiting for just medical clearance in the first place and looking for what the Lord has for us in the next months,” she said.

“Not quite sure where we’re headed. But we are willing. We’re willing to go back.”

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

To donate to Serving In Mission’s Ebola efforts in West Africa, visit http://helpebola.org/.

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