Less than two months after he recovered from Ebola, Dr. Kent Brantly testified at a joint Senate hearing about the deadly virus in West Africa.
“I came to understand first-hand what my own patients had suffered,” Brantly said, describing his reaction to becoming ill July 23. “I was isolated from my family and I was unsure if I would ever see them again. Even though I knew most of my caretakers, I could see nothing but their eyes through their protective goggles… I experienced the humiliation of losing control of my bodily functions…”
Brantly was one of two American missionaries working with Ebola patients in Liberia who were brought to the U.S. for treatment this summer. He had been caring for sick Ebola patients in Monrovia, Liberia, with the Christian aid group Samaritan’s Purse. After less than a month at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, doctors said Brantly had no signs of the disease and posed no public health threat.
Brantly’s recent comments echo the empathy Father Damien De Veuster expressed 140 years ago while ministering to patients with leprosy — now called Hansen’s disease — on an isolated corner of the Hawaiian island of Molokai.
“…I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ,” Father Damien wrote in a letter to his brother, Pamphile. “That is why, in preaching, I say ‘we lepers,’ not, ‘my brethren…’ ”
He died of Hansen’s disease April 15, 1889, at 49, after spending 12 years at Kalawao, one of two leprosy settlements on Molokai. He matter-of-factly described the symptoms he witnessed: open sores, hacking coughs, the smell of sickness and death.
Shortly before he died with Mother Marianne at his bedside, Father Damien again wrote to his brother. “I am gently going to my grave,” wrote the Belgian priest, canonized a saint in 2009. “It is the will of God, and I thank Him very much for letting me die of the same disease and in the same way as my lepers. I am very satisfied and very happy.”
Health experts have obvious advantages in dealing with today’s Ebola outbreak compared to Hansen’s disease. Technology and medical equipment are far superior, and today’s media have the potential to spread accurate information quickly worldwide.
The parallels between Brantly’s and Father Damien’s comments suggest that despite the years and conditions separating the health crises, some human impulses endure. They include great outpourings of compassion and the admirable call to serve others. Sadly, though, both outbreaks also spurred fear, shame and stigma.
From 1865, Hawaii banished to Kalaupapa about 8,000 people officials determined — or suspected — had Hansen’s disease. Many were “arrested” and brought there against their will. Some families hid relatives they thought might be ill. Others abandoned their sick family members, fearing they might catch the disease. Even now, some do not know, or acknowledge, they have relatives who were at Kalaupapa.
During a three-day lockdown in Sierra Leone last month, some experts feared the order would lead some to hide relatives with symptoms. A recent BBC report described the dilemma of Ebola survivors. “Once an Ebola patient, you’re always an Ebola patient,” a man explained. “Survivors face total rejection.”
Even amid fear and risk of contagion, health-care workers and people with religious convictions have long volunteered to serve in dangerous places.
Father Damien anticipated he would end up on Molokai. In April 1873, he wrote his superior in the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a missionary religious order. “Many of our Christians here at Kohala also had to go to Molokai. I can only attribute to God an undeniable feeling that soon I shall join them,” he wrote.
St. Marianne Cope, then leader of the Syracuse-based Sisters of St. Francis, was also eager to minister to patients with Hansen’s disease.
“I am not afraid of any disease, hence, it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned ‘lepers,’” she wrote in 1883, in response to a request from the Hawaiian government to help set up a hospital there. “We were not only willing but anxious to go and care for the poor outcasts,” she said in 1887, four years after she and six Franciscan sisters left Syracuse to serve in Hawaii.
Brantly has said he decided on missionary work before choosing to become a doctor. He went to West Africa because people there needed help and he felt God was calling him to help there. Nancy Writebol, who was also flown to Atlanta and treated there, was a missionary with SIM, an international Christian missionary organization. She, too, expressed a longtime call to serve. Many health care workers volunteering to work in the Ebola zone describe a similar sense of duty.
For some, though, panic and fear overshadow gratitude at the missionaries’ generosity. Days after Brantly and Writebol returned to the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported receiving nasty emails and phone calls from people worried that the two would spread Ebola in the U.S.
“I hope that our understandable fear of the unfamiliar does not trump our compassion when ill Americans return to the U.S. for care,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in July.
A recent Internet meme suggests fear is abundant. The image shows a man sitting in an airport, clothed in layers of plastic, wearing gloves and a mask.
Kalaupapa patients knew that people feared them. One patient described traveling to Oahu in 1955 to choose a wedding dress, only to find the owner would not let her inside. A Franciscan sister who worked at Kalaupapa from 1970 to 1975 recalled a plane trip to Honolulu. When passengers learned she worked on Kalaupapa, they stood in the aisle to get away from her.
As the Ebola crisis continues to evolve, we must not repeat the ignorant mistakes still causing pain to former Hansen’s patients and surviving family members in Hawaii. Today’s technology and modern sensibilities better equip us to address this health crisis. Learn the facts about how Ebola spreads, and take reasonable precautions. Follow Father Damian’s and Dr. Brantly’s examples and let compassion continue to outweigh fear.
Renée K. Gadoua is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Manlius. She covered the canonization process of St. Marianne for The Syracuse Post-Standard. She visited Kalaupapa twice to report on the story. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeKGadoua.