The COVID-19 pandemic might feel like déjà vu for Kent Brantly, M.D. (’03), who contracted the deadly Ebola virus in 2014 while serving as a medical missionary in Liberia. He became the first Ebola patient to receive the experimental drug ZMapp and the first to be flown back to the U.S. for treatment.
Six years later, he and his wife, Amber (Carroll ’06), and their children, Ruby and Stephen, have returned to Africa, where Kent works in Zambia at Mukinge Mission Hospital, a 200-bed facility serving as a regional hospital to a remote area of the south-central African nation.
Kent, who appeared on the cover of Time as the magazine named “The Ebola Fighters” its 2014 Person of the Year, talks in this Q&A about his return to Africa, the similarities between the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and the current pandemic, and some of the lessons he has learned.
After nearly losing your life to Ebola in 2014, why did you decide to return to Africa this year?
As a doctor and a nurse, Amber and I feel called to use our professional skills in service to people in need. We believe God has placed a calling on our lives, and we’ve expressed that call as a three-fold vision: to care for the poor, to have compassion on people in need, and to participate in the coming of God’s kingdom on this earth – to participate in His work of restoration, fixing the broken things in this world. We’ve been eager to return to this type of work and life ever since I recovered from Ebola, and we are thankful for the opportunity to be back in Africa again.
How does Mukinge Mission Hospital compare to the hospital in which you worked in Liberia?
There are some similarities between Mukinge and ELWA – both are Christian mission hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa; both have need for more staff; many of the medical problems we encounter are similar.
But there are many differences between our setting in Zambia compared to the environment in Liberia. ELWA Hospital is on the outskirts of Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, with a population of over 1 million people, with the amenities of a major city – restaurants, shopping and even some entertainment. ELWA is situated on a beautiful beach on the western-most coast of the continent.
Mukinge, on the other hand, is located in rural Zambia, on the outskirts of Kasempa, a town of 44,000 people, in the middle of a landlocked nation. While there is a market and several stores in Kasempa, the nearest city is Solwezi, the provincial capital, about 100 miles away. Besides the differences in setting, Mukinge Hospital has roughly four times the bed capacity compared to ELWA’s in 2014.
What is a typical day for you in Mukinge?
Since I started working in the hospital in late March, I have been primarily responsible for the maternity ward. This includes the labor ward, where babies are born; postpartum, for mothers who have recently delivered; antepartum, for pregnant women requiring hospitalization for any number of reasons; and the Special Care Unit for Babies (imagine a low-tech NICU). Every day, I make rounds on all of the patients in the various parts of the maternity ward. Right now, we have four doctors who cover the whole hospital (a fifth doctor is joining us this month). Each doctor takes overnight calls for the entire hospital roughly every fourth night. Despite the heavy workload, most days I get to make the 5-minute walk home to eat lunch with my family in the middle of the day.
How has that changed since COVID-19 made its way into Zambia?
While the first cases of COVID-19 in Zambia were diagnosed in March, it was over June and July that cases began to increase rapidly. This has changed our routines at the hospital – no visitors, staff wearing masks at all times, temperature checks at the hospital entrance and limiting elective procedures. But we are thankful our immediate area has, up to this time, not had many known cases of COVID-19.
How is the prospect of dealing with COVID-19 in Mukinge similar or different from what you experienced with Ebola in Liberia?
Of course, there are some things that feel similar between our experience with Ebola and the current situation with COVID-19 – the heightened vigilance, the anxiety of the unknown, the stress of trying to carry out the necessary routines of daily work and life under the weight of the looming disaster. [But] there really are so many differences between the two experiences.
For starters, the two diseases are so different and have different modes of transmission. Ebola is only transmitted by direct contact with a sick individual. Another difference is that the entire world has been affected by COVID-19.
We’ve been heartbroken as we follow the news of the impact of this pandemic on our friends and loved ones in America and around the globe. And the global reach of this disaster has also impacted our ability to receive aid from the outside world. Many countries and aid organizations stepped up to combat Ebola in West Africa.
But with COVID-19, everyone is having to tend to the needs in their own communities, decreasing their ability to offer assistance to places where perhaps the resources are lacking for the robust response that is necessary for this pandemic. Add to that the logistical complications of transporting goods and people across international borders, and you begin to see that the impact of COVID-19 is far greater than the illness caused by the virus.
What are the challenges there of physical distancing and other preventative steps to avoid the virus?
It’s hard for us to imagine the experience of our friends and family in the U.S., with all of the lockdowns and physical distancing measures over these past months. But as hard as these times have been for so many in America, trying to implement physical distancing in the context of a communal society like Zambia has unique challenges of its own. Most Zambians live with large extended families in very simple homes without electricity or indoor plumbing, where there is no space for self-isolating or keeping social distance. This is a major complicating factor in the implementation of preventative measures in this pandemic.
What is daily life like for Amber and the children? How are they adjusting?
Amber and the children are adjusting very well to life in Zambia. But the middle of a pandemic is a challenging time to move into a new community. We still have not met many of our neighbors in the community surrounding the hospital, and there is much of the countryside and nearby villages that we have yet to see and experience.
You and Amber both have family in the U.S. What is it like to watch news of the COVID-19 spread from afar?
It has been hard for us to watch the news of COVID-19 spreading across the U.S. We have family members, friends and partners in the Gospel who have been infected with the coronavirus, and others who have been out of work or facing economic hardships because of the pandemic. We have had to trust the Lord with our anxieties and worries about our loved ones, and we pray for them daily.
Do you have any advice for people, especially Christians, in your homeland wrestling with their own pandemic?
My advice for people wrestling with this pandemic in America is the same as the message I preached in 2014: We must choose compassion over fear – fear of the virus, fear of loss, fear of missing out. We must choose to love our neighbors, and that may look quite different in a pandemic than it was in other times. But we must remain committed to following the way of Jesus and thinking critically about what that looks like in our ever-changing world.
We may not like the “new normal,” but we have to come to terms with the fact that things will never be exactly as they were before. We also must cultivate an enduring sense of gratitude.
These are times of great anxiety for many of us, with the fears and unknowns of the future. We must heed the words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “Don’t you worry about anything. Instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank him for all he has done.”
When we truly live that out, we will experience the truth of the promise that follows: “And the peace of God, far beyond what we can understand, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
How has your experience with Ebola and other suffering you’ve seen on the mission field shaped your theology?
This would require a very long conversation. I can’t fully describe the ways our experiences in 2014 and since have shaped our theology. All I can say is that I have more questions and fewer answers than I did before.
And I hope I extend more grace and mercy now than I did before as a result of those experiences.
– Robin Saylor
May 14, 2021