Face to Face with Ebola: A Review of Dr. Kent Brantly's Memoir

Remembering the height of the worldwide Ebola pandemonium in 2014 is instructive 3 year later. All the names, dates, controversies and places from that era have long faded from headlines and the memories of the general public. Even I, who was keeping up with Ebola on an almost minute-by-minute basis, sometimes forget the intensity of the outbreak and continual media coverage. 

One of the first explosions of worldwide media occurred, of course, with the infection of American family medicine physician and medical missionary Dr. Brantly in Liberia. His infection, his transport back to the US, and his receipt of experimental therapeutics were unprecedented in the history of Ebola. The opposition to his transport to Atlanta was also unprecedented, disturbing, and shocking. 

I was one of those who vociferously argued for Dr. Brantly's evacuation to the US where he received state-of-the art treatment and recovered. Because of those efforts I made in the media at the time I was honored to be in the same room with him during a White House event. But I had no real familiarity with his personal experiences in Liberia and with Ebola.

I recently read Dr. Brantly and his wife's memoir of the experience Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led us into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic. This book, written in 2015, is not only a gripping and poignant account of the Brantlys experiences with the outbreak but also how they coped with Dr. Brantly's infection.

The book weaves together the Brantly's decisions to enter the medical field and the career choices they made with the narrative of the Ebola outbreak. Many of the observations included are, by now, familiar (e.g. the unique challenges of containing Ebola in an urban populated area that emerged from civil war, the angry mobs, and the overall logistical challenges. However, to me, the value of the book is chiefly Dr. Brantly's recounted of his own personal experience with Ebola.

A few important points he makes merit emphasis:

  • The initial negative Ebola test which required repeating given lack of sensitivity at early infection
  • The necessity of ruling out malaria and initially treating for malaria empirically
  • The voluminous diarrhea and ensuing electrolyte abnormalities of Ebola and the absoulte need to correct them
  • The role of experimental agents and the challenges with administering them in a resource-challenged environment 

My favorite part of the book is Dr. Brantly's recounting of the  appearance of a top Ebola virologist outside his window in Liberia to discuss experimental treatments with him. 

Reading this family physician's account of his successful battle with the deadly Ebola virus is well worth it.