Amber Brantly watched her husband, Dr. Kent Brantly, climb out of the plane and walk into the doors of Emory Hospital in Atlanta.
Hours earlier, she had expected him to be carried into the hospital on a stretcher. Or worse, that his body would succumb to the deadly Ebola virus during the flight from Monrovia, Liberia, making her a widow and her two children fatherless.
She couldn’t visit him because he was still highly contagious, but the minute he was settled in his hospital room, she called him on her cellphone.
“We watched you walk into the hospital,” she told him, trying to keep her voice calm.
“You were watching me?” Kent asked.
“Oh, Kent, the whole world was watching you,” she said.
The story of the American missionary doctor who had been stricken with the virus from which he was trying desperately to save others had been covered by news outlets around the world. His evacuation from the Ebola treatment unit of ELWA Hospital in Liberia to Atlanta had not been easy, but Samaritan’s Purse had worked around the clock to locate an aircraft with a patient isolation chamber that could carry contagious patients.
People around the world had followed the story, many praying for Brantly. Nine days into his illness, just before the flight to Atlanta, the 33-year-old doctor had taken a turn for the worse, but doctors secured an experimental drug, and his body responded almost immediately. He was put on the plane, and by the time it landed the next day, he had gained enough strength to walk off with only minor assistance from a paramedic—in front of network television cameras.
“We are watching answered prayer,” Franklin Graham said.
Theatergoers can watch the full story of Brantly and hygienist Nancy Writebol’s struggle with Ebola in a one-night-only film March 30 at select theaters across the United States. The documentary traces Samaritan’s Purse’s effort to stay one step ahead of the deadly disease as they tended to stricken patients day in and day out at the Ebola treatment unit at ELWA Hospital in Monrovia.
“Facing Darkness is a testimony to what God can do and will do,” Franklin said. “I hope that out of this movie, there will be an army of young people who will say yes to missions. It’s an incredible story!”
Samaritan’s Purse arrived in Liberia in 2003, the year the country’s second civil war ended. The country’s infrastructure had suffered, and its premier hospital, ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa), located outside the capital of Monrovia, had begun to fall into disrepair. The health care system was in shambles.
“We began to work closely with SIM (Serving in Mission), to rebuild the hospital,” Franklin said.
Kent and Amber Brantly arrived in 2013. The Ebola outbreak began in March 2014—with 49 cases reported on March 24 alone. By June, an epidemic was raging, with entire families being wiped out. Ebola first appeared in 1976 in areas like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and is spread through bodily fluids and bodily contact. The West Africa outbreak became the worst epidemic since the virus was discovered, according to the World Health Organization. Patients began to show up at ELWA Hospital with severe body aches, bleeding and vomiting as the disease made its way into major urban areas in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. It was fatal in 90 percent of the cases.
“It wasn’t on our radar until we were told Ebola had come into Guinea, and it might come into Liberia,” Franklin said. “And to be honest, it put a little bit of a shiver down my spine to think that we may be anywhere close to the world’s most dangerous virus.”
Doctors Without Borders was frantically fighting the disease, but when it exploded into Monrovia, they asked Samaritan’s Purse to take over the clinical side of the disease—a very sobering request for Samaritan’s Purse workers, who would be putting their own lives on the line.
“Amber and I decided together that this is still where God had called us to serve,” Brantly said. “Faith is not something that makes you safe. You had to face death in the eye and decide, ‘Who am I going to be today?’”
Complicating the situation—after years of civil war, the people of Liberia deeply distrusted any authority and went so far as to blame the aid workers for spreading the disease. Hospitals and aid workers were attacked. Yet the Samaritan’s Purse team continued to serve.
“People were dying,” Franklin said. “People were suffering. But God has called us to care for the dying, to care for those that are suffering.”
So every day, Brantly and other medical staff suited up in special gear that covered every centimeter of their skin, and treated dozens of patients as the number of people infected with the deadly virus began to steadily increase. When their efforts failed, they held the hands of their patients as the disease took their lives.
“I tried to treat my patients as if they were my mother or brother or sister or father,” Brantly said.
When Brantly woke up one Wednesday morning feeling fatigued and feverish, he immediately feared the worst. He called his co-workers, then isolated himself in his home. His first Ebola test was negative, but the subsequent test confirmed he had contracted the virus. Writebol, who had helped Brantly suit up on so many occasions, was diagnosed almost immediately thereafter.
When Franklin got the call about Brantly, he immediately called Amber, pledging to do everything he could to save her husband, then he assembled his team and the fight was on to save the lives of Brantly and Writebol. Samaritan’s Purse began the search for a plane, calling on the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. State Department.
The story of Brantly and Writebol’s evacuation unfolds side by side on the Facing Darkness documentary, as an inspiring story of faith facing and overcoming fear.
“There are innumerable lessons we could draw from our experience,” Brantly told the Star-Telegram newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas, where he now sees patients at a community health clinic. “The one I have tried to preach the most is choosing compassion over fear. I think that, at its core, is the most important lesson that this experience has illustrated.”
His exposure to Ebola also taught him the interconnectedness of all of humankind, no matter the city, state, country or continent. He hopes the documentary will inspire people to get involved in areas of need, wherever that involvement may take them.
“Anything happening somewhere around the world—any epidemic, disaster, humanitarian crisis—it can show up at our doorstep in the blink of an eye, and we have to be prepared for that,” he said.
He continued, “I hope that our voice is heard, not only pointing at West Africa, but I hope our voice is heard pointing to a need all over the world. What’s happening in Aleppo right now is devastating. It is a catastrophe of the greatest magnitude and we need to be paying attention. We need to not just turn a blind eye.”