As he lay sick in bed, stricken with the Ebola virus and fearful that he was taking what could be his final breaths, Dr. Kent Brantly recalls a message that kept playing in his head — one that brought him immense comfort in the midst of immeasurable pain and uncertainty.
"When I was laying in my bed in Liberia, thinking, 'This could be my last breath — I don't know if I'm going to live any longer,' a scripture kept coming back to my mind," he told The Church Boys podcast. "In fact, it was a children's song that I played on my computer that said, 'Nothing can separate us from the love of God that's in Christ Jesus, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.'"
These lyrics, which are derived from Romans 8:39, helped Brantly — a Christian medical missionary who made international headlines last year when he was the first American to contract the Ebola virus and be treated in the U.S. — cope in his most desperate hour.
"And in that moment that was what I needed to be faithful to God — even if it was just with my will, my desire to be faithful, to know whether I live or die, nothing can separate me from the love of God," he explained. "That was profound to me. It wasn't a cure that I needed, it wasn't having somebody beside me 24 hours a day that I needed to be faithful to God. It was the assurance that I was secure in his love."
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Brantly, whose new book "Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic," was written alongside his wife, Amber, said that surviving Ebola has "raised more questions than it has [offered] answers" when it comes to issues of faith and God, but that he knows that the Lord will give people whatever they need to navigate the oft-times tough tasks and plights that come before them.
"We've wrestled through how God works, suffering, life not being fair," said Amber, a nurse, as she teared up while describing how the Ebola epidemic has impacted her. "I think Kent's doctors had warned me about having survivor's syndrome ... and I think that's hit both of us. I'm the one with my husband, and so many others don't [have the same]."
Kent described the past 12 months since his survival and recovery as a "very surreal time," though he said that he and his family have also gone back to living their normal lives since he became a household name when he contracted the same virus that he had been treating in Liberia.
The doctor believes that it was his faith that ultimately carried him through the horrific, near-death experience; he noted, though, that it was also his Christian beliefs that led him to Liberia in the first place.
"[My wife and I] both shared a calling to medical missions work," Kent said. "Amber's a nurse, I'm a doctor, and when we got married that was our goal all along — to become medical missionaries, to go work in a difficult place, taking care of people who are experiencing great suffering."
The couple ended up heading to Liberia after meeting staff members with Samaritan's Purse, an international Christian relief group, from whom they learned about a two-year program for physicians that pair up newly minted doctors with mentors who guide them on the mission field.
After being accepted, the Brantlys headed to Liberia in October 2013, at which point Ebola was not yet running rampant in the West African country.
"We never knew that we would be dealing with Ebola," Brantly said, though there were plenty of other deadly diseases that were already problematic in the region at the time.
Ebola victim Dr. Kent Brantly stands with his wife, Amber, during a news conference after being released from Emory University Hospital, Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
It wasn't long after, though, that the Ebola outbreak also began to take root.
"When it first crossed into the border into Liberia it was in March 2014, and at that time Samaritans Purse decided to evacuate their dependents and spouses," Amber explained, noting that the initial problem was soon contained and she and the couple's two children were able to return.
Months later, the virus once again intensified, though, with Kent recalling taking Amber and the children to the airport on July 20, 2014; they were slated to fly home for a family wedding and he would then follow them back to the U.S. in the coming days — or so he thought.
Kent woke up on July 23 with an upset stomach, feeling mildly feverish, so he stayed home that morning out of precaution, though he said that he didn't initially think that he had Ebola. Sure, the thought had crossed his mind. After all, he had been working in the world's worst Ebola outbreak for seven weeks. But he wasn't convinced that he had the disease.
By lunchtime, though, his fever worsened. That's when his colleagues headed over for a preliminary Ebola test, which was negative. But three days later, an official test yielded a positive result.
"I was really scared," Amber recalled of finding out about her husband's condition. "I knew how bad it was, I knew how many people had already died of it — and it was just erupting in Liberia."
Only about an hour or so passed after she found out about the Ebola diagnosis before news of her husband's condition began hitting social media and the news cycle. One of Amber's first actions was to reach out to prayer supporters to alert them about what was going on.
Separated by continents and a deadly disease that threatened Kent's life, the husband and wife were center stage as the media and the general American public learned more about a virus that, until that point, had seemed nothing more than a distant problem.
While Amber dealt with the stark reality of what was unfolding, Kent battled for his life.
"I really experienced a tremendous amount of peace that week. I did things like call my brother and said, 'I need to have a conservation with you ... if I die here's some things you eneed to know to help Amber deal with things,'" Kent recalled of the days after his diagnosis. "But even when I had conversations like that, it was very kind of matter of fact."
Dr. Kent Brantly and his wife, Amber, are seen in an undated photo provided by Samaritan's Purse. Brantly became the first person infected with Ebola to be brought to the United States from Africa, arriving at at Emory University Hospital, in Atlanta on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP/Samaritan's Purse)
Despite having peace, he said that anxiety did set in as he became sicker, adding, "There's a lot of my illness that I don't remember."
Days after his diagnosis, Kent recalled feeling relief when he learned that he would be heading back to the U.S. to get treatment at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, even though he knew that death could quite possibly still be the end result of his struggle.
"I was still very sick at that point. It was still a real possibility that I might not survive," he said. "Even if I die I [thought I would] be close to my family ... that was a relief to know that maybe they'll be able to talk to me though window, or [that I could] see their faces before I die."
Looking back, he's not sure that he would have survived had he not come back to the U.S., where there were greater resources and capabilities to help meet his needs.
"I believe [God] brought me through it," Brantly said of the harrowing ordeal.
Amber said that the couple wrote the book "Called for Life" in an effort to tell the full story about what unfolded last year, though she said that she and her husband also have other goals that they hope to accomplish through the book.
"We also wanted to be an encouragement to people to think beyond themselves," she said, adding that they hope to encourage people to pitch in to help those in need.
The Brantlys are urging the public to pay attention to the fact that Ebola — despite no longer dominating the headlines — is still a very real problem in countries like Sierra Leone and Guinea, and that help is needed to combat the virus' spread.