Ask Dr. Kent Brantly, a 34-year-old physician from Fort Worth, Texas, whether his Christian faith saved his life when he was stricken with the often-fatal Ebola virus a year ago, and he’ll respond candidly. His faith brought him through the crisis, he said, but his commitment to missionary service also placed him and his young family in harm’s way.
“I think my faith is what got me into this mess in the first place,” Brantly said in a telephone interview. “My faith is what put me in a place that got me Ebola, and it led me to believe that even if I die, I was doing the right thing” by working in a danger zone.
Brantly, the son of a doctor who thought he’d never enter the medical field, captured world headlines in 2014 when he was evacuated from Liberia, one of the West African nations hardest hit by the disease. The doctor and his 31-year-old wife Amber, along with their two children, then ages 3 and 5, had arrived in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, in October 2013 to begin a two-year medical missionary stint.
Ten months later, while helping treat Ebola patients and with his family evacuated to avoid the contagion, Brantly was stricken. Only a dose of a then-experimental drug called ZMapp saved his life, at a time when more than half the people who contracted Ebola in West Africa died.
But Brantly’s story — which he and Amber tell in a new book, “Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic” — also has lessons for Americans and other Westerners contemplating mission service overseas.
Brantly and other experts assert it is necessary for organizations supporting and sending missionaries overseas to be aware of potential health risks and have contingency plans in place should the worst happen.
“I think just like individuals counting the cost, organizations need to be cognizant of the risks and liabilities of the people they are sending,” he said.
Some 40,000 American evangelical Christians are believed to be involved in such overseas work, according to statistics compiled by Wheaton College in its “Mission Handbook.” According to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s 2014 “Status of Mission” report, an estimated 435,000 foreign workers are involved in missionary activities around the globe.
Keeping missionaries safe, and helping out when workers confront either serious disease or acts of terrorism, are things many groups involved in sending workers now have to consider, said Dan Bouchelle, president of Mission Resource Network, a nonprofit that trains dozens of outgoing missionaries a year. Assessing potential risk should be part of the equation, he said.
“A lot of times churches don’t think about” potential dangers, Bouchelle said, and “missionaries don’t think about that, (so) they don’t get a lot of training. They just feel the call and go.” He added, “Nothing says being a follower of Jesus will protect you from all diseases and all harm.”
Many denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, the Assemblies of God, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Roman Catholic Church have agencies responsible for training and supporting missionaries overseas. Other groups such as the Churches of Christ and many non-denominational congregations lack that mission structure. Bouchelle’s organization works with these churches to train and equip missionaries for overseas service.
“Part of training missionaries is helping them to get a realistic sense of the risks,” Bouchelle explained. “You need to have evacuation insurance, have an evacuation plan, and have gone through a role playing exercise” to examine potential emergency scenarios and how to respond, he added.
Brantly was evacuated from Liberia in a private aircraft equipped with an isolation chamber, landing at a U.S. military base in Georgia. From there, he was transported in an ambulance to Emory University Hospital, where he spent three weeks in isolation, treated by doctors and nurses who wore two layers of plastic gloves and other protective gear.
Brantly, who said he never viewed evacuation from Liberia “as my right” but was grateful for the help he received, agreed sending-organizations need to assess the situation where overseas workers are headed.
“They need to have those conversations before you get into the middle of a disaster as far as what to expect as far as the organization’s responsibility or capability of helping you on the field,” he said.
Amber Brantly and their children were visiting relatives in the United States when Kent first felt ill, and they had to observe the initial course of the disease remotely. She said that while the family “never anticipated we would be fighting Ebola,” they were aware of the risks involved in doing missionary work in a developing nation still recovering from a brutal civil war.
“We did pick that place,” she said of choosing to serve in Monrovia. “We prepared for malaria. … But wherever we are, we’re not safe from the hazards of life. We never regretted moving to Liberia and supporting Kent when he worked there.”
Other organizations involved in sending missionaries overseas say the safety of these workers is a primary concern. A spokeswoman for the LDS Church, which has approximately 80,000 missionaries in the field at any given time, said “every mission home has an array of local physicians, dentists, specialists, etc., that they work closely with,” and that during the Ebola outbreak, mission presidents instructed missionaries on steps to avoid the contagion. For a while, LDS missionaries were evacuated from areas affected by the outbreak, a church website noted.
Debbie Northern, training and educational programs manager for Maryknoll Lay Missioners, based in Ossining, New York, said the group carefully screens applicants for their physical and mental health before sending them to live and work with poor communities in Africa, Asia and the Americas. They “cannot send anyone who does not have fairly good health into the mission field, because it is very stressful, very tiring, very hard work,” she said.
Northern said her group has obtained “excellent” medical insurance coverage for its lay missionaries, which can include entire families, where “taking children (overseas) is a bigger risk.” She said those concerns are assuaged when parents “know their children can get the care they need.”
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