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Nancy Writebol: Ebola survivor says a 'respectful fear' is good, but warns against hysteria

Posted at 10:54 PM, Oct 24, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-27 08:12:16-04

Nancy Writebol survived the Ebola virus, but it was not an easy road.

Special Section: More Ebola news

"I told the Lord, 'I don't know if I'm going to wake up here on Earth or in your presence.' There were nights when I was very unsure I would survive the night."

She and her husband David were missionaries, working at a hospital in Liberia in Western Africa. They were high school sweethearts at Evergreen High School, here in Colorado.

The first case of Ebola arrived at their hospital on June 11. Soon after, the hospital was forced to move the cases into a bigger isolation unit.

Nancy's job was to make sure doctors and nurses were dressed properly to protect them from the virus.

"We just considered it part of our ministry," Nancy said. "There was never a question about leaving."

On July 22, she went to work but felt ill. A malaria test came back positive and Nancy spent the next days at home.

When she didn’t respond to medication, Nancy was tested for Ebola on July 26. That test confirmed she had contracted the dangerous virus.

"No husband should ever have to look into the eyes of the love of his life and deliver that kind of message," David said.

He also informed his wife that Dr. Kent Brantley had also contracted Ebola.

"My greatest concern at first was for Kent, for Dr. Brantley, who was not only our colleague but a really good friend of ours," Nancy said.

In the time that the Writebols spent helping to treat Ebola patients, they'd seen 40 cases and only one survivor. The diagnosis was sobering news.

"All of us knew the reality of what could happen," Nancy said.

She was in Liberia for 11 days before being evacuated to the United States on a specialized jet.

Throughout that scary time, David was not allowed contact with the woman he had married 40 years earlier. He could only speak to her through the bedroom window.

"I just remember learning during that time that if I had something to say to Nancy I better get it said," David recalled. "I would constantly tell her how much she meant to me and that she's the love of my life."

Dr. Brantley was evacuated first on a specialized jet. When it was Nancy's turn, there was no room for David. They had to say goodbye.

"When I said goodbye to Dave and when I was evacuated I was at the lowest then," Nancy recalled, showing obvious emotion. "Saying goodbye was very difficult, not knowing if I would ever see Dave again."

While he never became ill with the disease, David had trouble getting back to the United States to be with Nancy because of concerns over his potential exposure to the virus. In the end, he used a private charter to return home.

Nancy was treated for two weeks at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Brantly was also treated at the same hospital.

For two more weeks Nancy was isolated in the hospital, talking to her sons by phone as they looked through a window. She was bedridden, unable to walk because of the pain.

Then, one day, her doctor said she had turned the corner.

"All I remember, all I could say to him was, 'praise God.' He kept talking to me and all I could think was, 'praise God,'" Nancy said.

She continued, "One of my daughter-in-laws is expecting and I said to him, 'I'm going to get to hold my grand baby.'"

While Nancy is still recovering, regaining strength every day, she and David remain focused on the suffering in Liberia. They are making it their mission to be a calming reminder of what everyone should understand about Ebola.

"It's really important, we think, that people have a respectful fear of Ebola. I think that's very appropriate," Nancy said. "But the panic and the hysteria that’s going on, we are concerned about that. We think that people need to understand, of course, that it's not airborne."

"We know what causes the spread of the disease, we know how to treat it, we know how to contain it. People should be thinking about those things," David said. "If we use the things that we know, then we can be safe."

Nancy and David continue to advocate for their missionary organization and say they may return to their work in Liberia one day.