MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We're going to hear now from an Ebola survivor, one of the first Americans we learned had been infected. Dr. Kent Brantly is a medical missionary. He was working in Liberia for months before the Ebola outbreak. Then in June, Ebola patients started streaming into his hospital, the numbers increasing exponentially. The victims, he says, suffering lonely, horrifying deaths.
By the end of July, Dr. Brantly was himself diagnosed with Ebola. He was flown back to the states, was treated in Atlanta and now is cured. Dr. Brantly is in Washington this week to testify before Congress about the dire need for help in West Africa. And he joins me now. Dr. Brantly, welcome to the program.
KENT BRANTLY: Thank you, it's nice to be here.
BLOCK: When you first got sick in July, was there any question in your mind that you had contracted Ebola?
BRANTLY: I hoped for the best. I hoped that I had forgotten to take my malaria medicine and gotten bit by mosquito during a night shift or something. But I was not naive enough to think I'm immune to Ebola and I knew there was a possibility. So I took every precaution necessary as if I had Ebola from the very beginning just to be sure I protected everyone else around me.
BLOCK: And then you did get the diagnosis. And I assume the symptoms became quite clear.
BRANTLY: Yes. There was a three-day lag between the time I first felt ill and the time my diagnosis was made. And during that time, my fever went higher and higher and my other symptoms of diarrhea and nausea began. The picture was becoming clearer every day.
BLOCK: Well, as a doctor who had been treating Ebola patients, you, of course, knew the dangers, I'm assuming, you had protective gear there in Liberia. Do you have any sense of how you infected?
BRANTLY: I am very convinced - 100 percent convinced - that I did not contract Ebola in our Ebola treatment unit. Our process was incredibly safe. We were being provided with all of the necessary personal protective equipment that we needed. But I was still treating patients in the emergency room - the undifferentiated patient - who comes in with that fever and some vague symptoms. And I was still doing C-sections and seeing patients in clinics. So I think I probably contracted it from another patient in the emergency room or in another part of the hospital.
BLOCK: Can you describe a bit your experience as a patient - no longer as a doctor - but as a patient?
BRANTLY: When I became ill, I started to experience firsthand what my patients had suffered under my care. And Ebola's really a humiliating disease. You're isolated from your family, from your community, from everyone around you. And even though the people taking care of me were my colleagues and my friends, you know, I couldn't see anything but their eyes when they came to see me. I couldn't see their faces. I couldn't see their smile. When you go a week without seeing another human face, that does something to you.
BLOCK: This is because of the protective suits that they're wearing and the masks?
BRANTLY: Correct, correct. And, you know, I didn't have the touch of another human's skin until the time I was released from Emory Hospital. So for nearly a month, everyone who touched me was wearing two pairs of gloves. And then there's the aspect of losing control of your bodily functions, and even the horror of vomiting blood or seeing a large amount of blood in your diarrhea and realizing that - especially as a physician - realizing what that implied. That I was having internal bleeding that could very easily lead to my death.
BLOCK: What does it say to you, Dr. Brantly, that the Ebola outbreak, by and large, only got global attention after two white Americans came down with the disease?
BRANTLY: Melissa, I spoke to Congress about that very issue today and commented that I'm very thankful for the media attention that is now focused on West Africa, but it really is a shame that the thousands of African lives and deaths did not merit that same amount of attention from the world.
BLOCK: What do you chalk that up to?
BRANTLY: I think the only thing you can chalk it up to is - I don't know if ignorance is the right word - you know, out of sight, out of mind. Until you have a human face on it - a human connection - it's just some people far away. But when it becomes one of your own, when it happens to somebody close to you, it makes it very real.
BLOCK: We heard, Dr. Brantly, yesterday the announcement from President Obama that the U.S. will be setting up 17 treatment centers in Liberia, maybe 1,700 beds, they're going to be training more healthcare workers, sending home treatment kits out to people's homes. What, though, do you think can be done about the widespread fear and confusion and superstition in African communities? You testified about this before Congress. You talked about people who don't even think Ebola is real.
BRANTLY: It's easy - relatively easy - to send supplies and equipment and maybe even personnel across the ocean. But you raise a very good point - changing people's beliefs or altering their behaviors is a very difficult challenge in any setting. I think the only people capable of helping those who are still in denial are their neighbors - the people around them, survivors - the Liberian survivors of Ebola.
BLOCK: The Liberian survivors you're talking about, you're suggesting they become witnesses, basically, to try to overcome the stigma to say this is real and yes, you can survive and here's what you need to do? How hard a task is that do you think?
BRANTLY: I think it's a very challenging task. But survivors - as a survivor, I see it as my - my privilege and my duty to speak out on behalf of those who are still suffering. And I think many of the survivors in West Africa feel the same way. They want to do something to give back to their community, to show their appreciation to God for saving their lives. And they want to do that by helping their neighbors. It's a very challenging task because of the fear and the stigma that's attached to this horrible disease. But I think it's doable.
BLOCK: We did hear, Dr. Brantly, yesterday in the president's remarks, he said we have to act fast, we can't dawdle on this one. And I'd be curious to hear how you registered that from your perspective. You started seeing patients in June. We're now in mid-September. Has the global community been dawdling?
BRANTLY: I think the global community has been way too sluggish in responding to this epidemic. I started treating patients in June, but we knew about the outbreak at the end of March. And we decided that it had actually started as far back as December. So we're nine months into this outbreak. And finally the world and the United States government are taking action that is more on the scale of what is needed. And I cannot emphasize enough the urgency of this matter. It has to happen now in a matter of hours and days. We've waited two and a half months since I was told the U.S. government put their eye on the situation. We cannot afford to wait another two and a half months. We cannot afford to wait two and a half weeks. We must act now.
BLOCK: Well, Dr. Brantly, thank you so much for talking with us today.
BRANTLY: Thank you, Melissa.
BLOCK: That's Dr. Kent Brantly, a medical missionary with the group Samaritan's Purse. It's a Christian international relief organization. He contracted Ebola in July while he was working as a doctor in Liberia.