ATLANTA — A specially equipped medical plane whisked Ebola-stricken Dr. Kent Brantly from Liberia to Georgia on Saturday, setting up the latest leg of a race to save the man who’s now the first known Ebola patient on U.S. soil.
An ambulance rushed Brantly — one of two Americans seriously sickened by the deadly viral hemorrhagic fever last month while on the front lines of a major outbreak in West Africa — from Dobbins Air Reserve Base to Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital shortly after the plane landed late Saturday morning.
Video from Emory showed someone wearing a white, full-body protective suit helping a similarly clad person emerge from the ambulance and walk into the hospital.
Emory has said it will treat Brantly, 33, and, eventually, the other American, fellow missionary Nancy Writebol, in an isolation unit.
There, physicians say they have a better chance to steer them to health while ensuring the virus doesn’t spread — the last point nodding to public fears, notably expressed on social media, that the disease could get a U.S. foothold.
The plane, also equipped with a unit meant to isolate the patient, was able to take only one patient at a time. Organizers expect the plane will now pick up Writebol in Liberia, and bring her to Georgia early next week, said Todd Shearer, spokesman for Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse, with which both Americans were affiliated.
Brantly’s wife, parents and sister cried when they saw him on CNN, walking from the ambulance into the hospital, a family representative said on condition of anonymity. His wife, Amber, later said she was relieved that her husband was back in the United States.
“I spoke with him, and he is glad to be back in the U.S.,” she said in statement sent to CNN. “I am thankful to God for his safe transport and for giving him the strength to walk into the hospital.”
Brantly’s wife visited with him from behind a glass wall for about 45 minutes, the family representative said. Kent Brantly was described as being “in great spirits and so grateful.”
Brantly, who has ties to Texas and Indiana, and Writebol, of North Carolina, became sick while caring for Ebola patients in Liberia, one of three West African nations hit by an outbreak that health officials believe has sickened more than 1,300 people and killed more than 700 this year.
Treatment in isolation
This will be the first human Ebola test for a U.S. medical facility. But Brantly and Writebol will be treated at an isolated unit where precautions have been in place to keep such deadly diseases from spreading, unit supervisor Dr. Bruce Ribner said.
Everything that comes in and out of the unit will be controlled, Ribner told reporters Thursday, and it will have windows and an intercom for staff to interact with patients without being in the room.
Ebola is not airborne or waterborne, and spreads through contact with organs and bodily fluids such as blood, saliva, urine and other secretions of infected people.
There is no FDA-approved treatment for Ebola, and Emory will use what Ribner calls “supportive care.” That means carefully tracking a patient’s symptoms, vital signs and organ function and taking measures, such as blood transfusions and dialysis, to keep him or her as stable as possible.
“We just have to keep the patient alive long enough in order for the body to control this infection,” Ribner said.
Writebol was given an experimental serum this week, Samaritan’s Purse said, though its purpose and effects, if any, weren’t immediately publicized.
The Ebola virus causes viral hemorrhagic fever, which refers to a group of viruses that affect multiple organ systems in the body and are often accompanied by bleeding.
Early symptoms include sudden onset of fever, weakness, muscle pain, headaches and a sore throat, but progress to vomiting, diarrhea, impaired kidney and liver function and sometimes internal and external bleeding.
Bruce Johnson, president of SIM USA, a Christian mission organization with which Writebol also is linked, said Saturday that Brantly and Writebol were seriously ill but stable.
“My last report (on Brantly) was yesterday. … He was ambulatory, being able to talk, converse, and get up. So that was encouraging,” Johnson said Saturday morning.
On Writebol, Johnson said: “She’s responsive, and we’re encouraged at how she’s doing.”
Emory’s isolation unit was created with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based down the road. It aims to optimize care for those with highly infectious diseases and is one of four U.S. institutions capable of providing such treatment.
The World Health Organization reports that the outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea is believed to have infected 1,323 people and killed more than 729 this year, as of July 27.
‘Compassionate’ Brantly had focus in mission fields
Brantly went to Liberia with his wife and two children last year to serve a two-year fellowship with Samaritan’s Purse.
Brantly was there initially to practice general medicine, but he focused on Ebola when the outbreak began, charity spokeswoman Melissa Strickland said.
He attended high school in Indianapolis before graduating from Abilene Christian University in 2003 and Indiana University’s medical school in 2009.
While at Abilene Christian, he spent a summer interning overseas with an ACU program focused on vocational missions experiences, ACU’s online alumni magazine reported.
“Everyone here who has been connected with Kent knows him to be someone who is very compassionate, considerate and always upbeat in all he does,” the program’s director, Dr. Gary Green, told the magazine. “.. Kent’s the kind of guy who would weigh benefits versus risk, then try to take himself out of the equation so that he would be thinking, ‘What do I bring to the table? Is the risk worth taking because I can benefit so many people?’ ”
Before heading to Liberia, Brantly did his residency at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth.
“We’re kind of proud that there was a hero out there trying to do his best to make life better for other folks under the circumstances,” a physician who knows him, Dr. Paul Pepe of Dallas’ UT Southwestern Medical Center, told CNN affiliate WFAA this week.
Though Brantly’s wife and children had been in Liberia with him, they were in the United States when he became ill, and they are not symptomatic themselves, the CDC has said.
Fear, conspiracy theories
As officials worked to bring Brantly and Writebol home, the idea of intentionally bringing Ebola into the United States has rattled many nerves.
“The road to hell was paved with good intentions,” wrote one person, using the hashtag #EbolaOutbreak. “What do we say to our kids When they get sick& die?”
On the website of conspiracy talker Alex Jones, who has long purported the CDC could unleash a pandemic and the government would react by instituting authoritarian rule, the news was a feast of fodder.
“Feds would exercise draconian emergency powers if Ebola hits U.S.,” a headline read on infowars.com.
Ribner repeatedly downplayed the risk for anyone who will be in contact with Brantly or Writebol.
“We have two individuals who are critically ill, and we feel that we owe them the right to receive the best medical care,” Ribner said.
The fight against Ebola
All concerns about the United States pale in comparison to the harsh reality in the hardest-hit areas.
Even in the best-case scenario, it could take three to six months to stem the epidemic in West Africa, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC.
There’s no vaccine, though one is in the works.
There’s no standardized treatment for the disease, either; the most common approach is to support organ functions and keep up bodily fluids such as blood and water long enough for the body to fight off the infection.
The National Institutes of Health plans to begin testing an experimental Ebola vaccine in people as early as September. Tests on primates have been successful.
So far, the outbreak is confined to West Africa. Although infections are dropping in Guinea, they are on the rise in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In the 1990s, an Ebola strain tied to monkeys — Ebola-Reston — was found in the United States, but no humans got sick from it, according to the CDC.