When my husband, David, and I became full-time missionaries, it was because we felt called to serve a higher purpose. I wanted to live out my faith every day. There’s more to faith than preaching — Jesus left his home to help others, and I wanted to emulate that. Throughout our 40-year marriage, David and I helped out in small ways with our church in Charlotte, North Carolina. But 16 years ago (once our two sons were close to college age), he left his job at a software company and I left mine at a high school and we relocated overseas.
We lived in Ecuador for about five years and Zambia for around eight, helping widows and orphans. Then, in the fall of 2013 when we were both 58, David and I moved to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, for our third stint with SIM (originally called Soudan Interior Mission). I was to be the personnel coordinator, helping missionaries get oriented; David would be the services director, taking care of facilities on the SIM campus. But though we moved there to help the Liberian people, I became the person in need.
AN OUTBREAK BEGINS
In March 2014, cases of Ebola started popping up in the northern part of Liberia and southern Guinea. The disease has been around since 1976, but this outbreak came on suddenly. We prepared our hospital, converting the chapel into an isolation unit with six beds, and making sure we had the proper protective equipment (PPE).
We received our first case on June 11. Because we were the only Ebola center open in Monrovia, sick people soon started coming from all over. By the end of June, we had four new patients every day. Other hospitals had not been prepared, so many of the people we were caring for were healthcare workers who contracted the disease treating others. Often, a taxi would pull up, and we’d open the door to find that the passenger had just died. As hard as this was for me, it was worse for the Liberian nurses. They saw friends and colleagues stream in. For many, it was too late.
Everything happened so fast that I barely had time to feel scared for myself. As the crisis escalated in the following weeks, it was all hands on deck at the hospital, and I began working 12- to 14-hour shifts. Ebola is easily passed through body fluids like blood, swea,t and vomit, so healthcare workers need to be completely protected. I followed the standard protocol by checking that doctors and nurses had no skin exposed when they put on their PPE. Then, when they came out of the isolation unit, I used a bleach solution to decontaminate their gear and helped them carefully remove it.
There’s no easy cure for Ebola, so doctors and nurses try to keep patients hydrated and their fevers down while their bodies attempt to fight off the virus. Ebola robs a person of their dignity — the vomiting, pain, and diarrhea are excruciating — and being unable to stop the disease was disheartening. I felt powerless. In the first month, we only had one survivor.
I remember a father who came every day to visit his dying daughter, talking to her through the window. I prayed with him and tried to encourage him. I cried out, “Lord, help me,” hoping He could show me how to be a blessing in this very difficult time. Sometimes, just being there was the most I could do.
There were days when I came home exhausted and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situation. But I always felt safe. My position was in the “low risk” zone of the hospital. I worried about those who were touching patients, like Kent Brantly, a doctor with SIM.
That’s why I didn’t panic when I felt lousy on July 22, my 59th birthday: Fatigue after working long hours is normal. David and I had dinner plans, but I called my friend Debbie, one of the doctors, and told her I thought I had malaria (the mosquitoes were terrible at night, and I had a touch of fever and a headache). She did a blood smear, and my suspicions were correct, so I went home to rest and took malaria medication. Four days later, Debbie did another malaria test and it was negative. But I still had a high fever. Just to put everyone’s mind at ease, she tested me for Ebola.
David was at a meeting with some of the doctors when the results came in that night. He ran straight home and said, “I have some things I need to tell you. Dr. Brantly has Ebola. And Nancy, you do too.” He reached out to comfort me, and I pulled back, saying, “No. Don’t.” I didn’t want David to get it and I knew the reality: Ebola was potentially going to take my life. But I felt a sense of calm that I believe was God’s presence and didn’t shed any tears.
Right then, I was most upset about everyone else. Dr. Brantly was more like a family member than a colleague. And David and I had lived together while I was sick, so I worried about his safety.
Since I was already at home, they isolated me there, and David immediately began a 21-day monitoring isolation — he lived alone in an apartment, reported his temperature daily and wasn’t allowed within 3 feet of anyone. For days, he sat outside on the back porch of our house and talked to me through the window. I don’t remember everything he said, but I always knew he was there and could feel his presence. The doctors and nurses came to treat me with fluids, electrolytes, and pain medications. I was also given two doses of ZMapp, an experimental Ebola drug.
Each day, I got weaker and sicker. I was completely at the mercy of others, drifting in and out of consciousness. It felt like the worst flu you could ever imagine, and my skin was painful to the touch. Then, because of the fever and diarrhea, I started to dehydrate — so badly that my veins didn’t have enough volume and Debbie couldn’t get an IV into me. As she tried, she said, “No one should have to do this to her friend.”
That night, August 4, after 10 days of isolation, I was evacuated back to the U.S. I didn’t realize it at the time, but David had been working with SIM’s leadership and the U.S. government to get me out. They dressed me in PPE before they put my stretcher onto a plane. I said goodbye to David, thinking I might not ever see him again. (He stayed in Liberia for five more days until he was able to travel.)
I was relieved to arrive at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where Dr. Brantly had been taken a few days earlier. But I knew that there was no guarantee I was going to live. I’d seen too much to be naive to the horrors of this virus. I just kept praying for strength. A team of five doctors and at least 21 nurses cared for me at Emory, and my sons Jeremy, 36, and Brian, 34, visited. I saw them through a window from my bed and picked up the phone to hear their voices. They told me they loved me.
With each passing day, I started to feel a tiny bit better, and after a week, one of the doctors walked in and said, “You’ve turned a corner.” My lab work showed the viral load for Ebola was going down, which is a positive sign. When I heard that, I thought, I just might make it.
As soon as David was in the clear, he visited me. When I saw him on August 17, it had been almost two weeks since I’d laid eyes on my husband. I was strong enough to stand, so we put up our hands to meet on opposite sides of the window and just smiled. I’ll never forget the feeling of looking him in the face again after so much uncertainty.
Finally, after 14 days, I was told I could go home. I had survived Ebola. As I left my room, the doctors and nurses lined the hallway and cheered. Every single person either hugged me or shook my hand. When I stepped outside into the fresh air and sunshine, I felt a wave of gratitude. I could only say, “To God be the glory” over and over. (Dr. Brantly was released two days later.)
Now, people ask me: What saved you? Was it the drug? Was it the care? Was it your faith? My response: All of the above. I believe God used those doctors, He used the ZMapp and He used my illness to make Americans aware of the suffering in West Africa. Before, it seemed like a faraway problem. It’s really not, and I’m grateful that my situation helped shine a light on it.
Today I have an even greater passion for service, and my respect for the physicians and nurses who risk their lives has increased exponentially. As human beings, we need to do what we can — even in small ways — to love our fellow man and to relieve suffering. That’s what Jesus did, and what I’ll strive to do, wherever God calls us to go next.
Nancy’s husband, David Writebol: “She is the most beautiful woman I know.”
“While Nancy was in isolation in Liberia, I sat on our house’s back porch and talked to her through an open window. I couldn’t touch or hug my own wife, which is how I usually show affection. I had to keep her going only through words, which was a challenge for me. I tried to be as specific and as loving as possible, telling her that she is the most beautiful woman I know and that I love her with all of my heart. Over the years, she has made me a better man, and now that she’s cured, I want to express my gratitude and love for her in as many ways as I can for all the days that we’re together. My goal is to love her in such a way that she knows that every day. She is the best part of my life, and my greatest joy is that I get to hang out with her.”
By Nancy Writebol, as told to Abigail Cuffey
!!!This story originally appeared on WomansDay.com!!!