Missionary, Ebola survivor and IU alum challenges medical school grads to remain true to their purpose

  • May 12, 2015

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Dr. Kent Brantly's return to his alma mater as the May 9 commencement speaker was big news to the Indiana University School of Medicine community, but even bigger news hit the airwaves that same day -- when Liberian officials reported the end of the spread of the deadly virus he contracted there as a medical missionary.

On Saturday, 13 months after Ebola first plagued the West African nation, Liberia officially marked the end of the epidemic, which was responsible for the deaths of more than 4,700 men, women and children. Officials said it had been 42 days since the last new case of Ebola in Liberia, twice the number of days considered the maximum incubation period for the virus.

The announcement was greeted with enthusiasm in many circles, including the World Health Organization, which called it a "monumental achievement for a country that reported the highest number of deaths in the largest, longest, and most complex outbreak since Ebola first emerged in 1976."

WHO officials credited people world-wide for support and assistance, especially the citizens and volunteers in Liberia. "It is a tribute to the government and people of Liberia that determination to defeat Ebola never wavered, courage never faltered. Doctors and nurses continued to treat patients, even when supplies of personal protective equipment and training in its safe use were inadequate. Altogether, 375 health workers were infected and 189 lost their lives."

Visiting his hometown of Indianapolis 10 months after he was treated for Ebola, Dr. Brantly spoke to 404 of Indiana University School of Medicine's latest graduates about being on the frontlines of an epidemic and the role of these new physicians in their chosen careers.

"We give up the comfort of a 9 to 5 job… and enter into the suffering of others," Brantly told the new physicians.

He described what some might have said was a futile effort, losing 20 of 21 patients in the first weeks of the epidemic in Liberia. "We take care of people with deadly disease despite the risk to our own health. When everyone else is running away in fear, we stay to help, to offering healing and hope."

"Losing so many patients didn't make me feel like a failure as a physician because I had learned that there is so much more to being a physician than curing illness," he said. Dr. Brantly described how he and his colleagues offered comfort to those we were critically ill, even while they were dressed head to toe in protective gear. "We were able to hold the hands of people as they died, to offer dignity in the face of humiliating circumstances."

Dr. Brantly told the new graduates not to let the next few challenging years of their residency training diminish their zeal to be healers.

"Don't let residency wear you out," he said, urging them to remember what motivated them to enter medical school and to reread as often as necessary their medical school application essay.

"Within this general calling of compassion that we all share as physicians, I felt the unique calling to use my skills, to practice my profession in a place with the greatest of need, among the most vulnerable people," he said.

Contracting Ebola wasn't in his plan, but he demonstrated that the illness hadn't damped his sense of humor. "Let me give you some advice, if you want to become famous, do it by being an excellent doctor, not by becoming a deathly ill patient."

At the conclusion of his address, Dr. Brantly received a standing ovation from the 3,300 members of the audience.

Following the address, IU School of Medicine Dean Jay L. Hess, M.D., Ph.D., presented Dr. Brantly with the Thomas Hart Benton Medal, first awarded by Indiana University in 1986 to symbolize the aspirations and ideals that are the foundation of the search for knowledge.

"We would be remiss in not recognizing Dr. Brantly for his extraordinary efforts both here and abroad," Dr. Hess said. "What Dr. Brantly experienced is truly the epitome of heroics in medicine, working under the most extreme of conditions at his own peril in order to extend aid to those suffering around him. Your enduring spirit exemplifies the kind of dedication, commitment and resilience we believe all of our graduates to be capable of as they embark on a new path today.

"Whenever, as physicians, we can help unburden and enlighten individuals through the work we do, the world becomes a better place for us all," Dr. Hess said.

"On Mother’s Day just 6 years ago, Kent Brantly became Dr. Brantly, and on Saturday we had the chance to see an amazing IU School of Medicine graduate who changed the world of Ebola treatment because he was determined that patients would die with dignity and care," said Charles R. Bantz, chancellor, Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, who spoke at both commencements.

At the time of the outbreak, Dr. Brantly was working as a medical missionary with Samaritan's Purse, and was appointed the medical director for the only Ebola treatment unit in southern Liberia. He contracted the virus in late July and was evacuated to an isolation unit at Emory University Hospital, becoming the first person to be treated on American soil for the virus.

He and his wife Amber, who now live in Texas, currently are spending their time speaking about the situation in Africa and summoning support for their mission of helping and healing. They also have written a book, "Called for Life," which will be released in July. The dust jacket explains the content as: "How loving our neighbor led us into the heart of the Ebola epidemic."

As good as the news is in Liberia, it does not mean the virus isn't active elsewhere; 18 new cases were reported this past week in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea. WHO officials say this is the fewest number of new cases reported there this year. Calling the announcement encouraging, the WHO advisory cautioned that "it is important to guard against complacency."

Saturday, the IU School of Medicine, which is the largest medical school in the nation, awarded:

-    307 Doctor of Medicine degrees

-    25 Doctor of Philosophy degrees

-    2 Combined M.D./Ph.D.

-    41 Master of Science degrees

-    16 Master of Science in clinical research degrees

-    3 M.D./M.S. in translational science degree

-    7 Master of Science in medical science degrees

-    3 Combined M.D./MBA

Dr. Kent Brantly

Dr. Kent Brantly | Photo by Tim Yates

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Mary Hardin