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Faith in the Face of Ebola: Samaritan’s Purse Doctor Finds Calling in Liberia

Health workers decontaminate each other in Liberia

Samaritan's Purse

John Burger - published on 10/29/14

In spite of threat from virulent disease, "There's a job to do, and you do it."

Dr. Ed Carns is a man with a big, easy laugh, but the sense of humor with which he recently discussed his early life and upbringing had to be tempered when speaking about his experience this year in Liberia.

Carns, who lives in Oklahoma when not jetting off as a volunteer physician for Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian aid organization headed by Rev. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, worked with Drs. Kent Brantly and Rick Sacra and Nancy Writebol, among others, in helping Liberians to fight the deadly Ebola outbreak that has claimed almost 5,000 persons so far, mostly in West Africa.

“I think the thing we were all saddened by was that the people we were caring for were very sick, and they knew it, and they knew they would likely die, and the only way we could approach them was in full [personal protective equipment],” Carns said in a telephone interview. “We couldn’t take our hand and put it on their hand or hold their hand. We could speak to them, but that was as close as we could get. We could reassure them, pray for them or speak to them about their medications. But it was difficult to have to be so impersonal with somebody that you knew was so close to death.”

Because of the highly transmissible nature of the disease, those who were sick and confined to the Ebola ward at the Monrovia hospital where Carns worked were not able to see family.

“Their family were not able to come and attend to them. They were as sick as can be, and the people taking care of them were in space suits,” Carns said. “That can’t be a lot of fun.”

Carns, 74, knew what he was getting into. On one trip, Carns left Oklahoma, where he has worked in emergency medicine for years, to provide emergency backup for Dr. Brantly, another volunteer for Samaritan’s Purse. Brantly, along with Nancy Writebol, a volunteer with the American Christian aid group Serving in Mission (SIM), were among the first Americans to contract Ebola this year. Both were airlifted back to the U.S., where they were treated, and have since recovered. So has another SIM colleague, Richard Sacra.

Preparing to leave home, Carns called his grown children together to say goodbye. Though he didn’t put it in such terms, he knew that it might be the last time they’d see him alive.

“Ebola’s a pretty scary thing,” he said. “It’s a very nasty disease. You’re looking at a 60 percent to 70 percent fatality ratio, so you don’t want to mess up.”

The extreme care to avoid mistakes and mishaps perhaps added to the stress of the daily routine in the makeshift ward in Monrovia. Though gowned in protective clothing and well-trained in decontamination procedures, the threat of contracting the virus “was real and it was almost palpable.”

“When you’re dealing with patients, there are things you would normally do, such as scratching your nose,” he said. “In this situation you don’t scratch your nose. You just made sure that would never happen. You’d never go in there alone because you don’t want to make the mistake to not have somebody there to say ‘Don’t do that.’ The reality of the threat never leaves you, and it’s hard to sleep at night, and it’s hard to put it away. It’s just that it’s a very tough environment.”

One of the side effects of the disease is erratic behavior, and caregivers have to take special care with such patients.

“You can’t afford to have somebody bite or scratch you or pull at your mask,” Carns said. “It’s a totally different environment, where you are a little hesitant to get too close if someone is acting erratically, you have to be careful they don’t attack you or tear your suit or whatever. All that stuff is a little on the scary side.”

With no antidote for the viral disease, caregivers can only support the patient until the virus runs its course. It’s crucial to keep the patient from getting dehydrated from excessive vomiting and diarrhea. At some point, the patient might not be able to swallow fluids, so IV therapy will be used.

“Then you’ve got to clean up the vomit, clean the patient, change their diapers. It’s a pretty intense day,” Carns said. “Personal protective equipment—PPE—a space suit—doesn’t make it easier.”

Though Monrovia enjoyed temperatures in the 80s, it would be about 100 degrees inside the "spacesuit."

We’d be in there for an hour or two. We’d see the patients, do rounds, give them their medications, adjust IVs and come out and decontaminate,” the doctor said. “Then you could watch patients through the windows and go in again after a couple of hours.”

So why leave a comfortable life in the American Midwest and leave family and friends for several weeks at a time to put your life at risk?

“The story is of the people who God called to that place at that time,” Carns explained. “There were many people who did remarkable work. Non-medical people were in abundance who did all kinds of non-medical work that had to be done to keep the ship afloat.

“There’s never been a more intense period in my life, and the people who stepped up were ordinary people," he continued. "There was nothing heroic or anything about them, but they knew there was a job to do, and we knew we were called to do that so that’s what we did. They’re people of faith. I’m not saying we weren’t afraid but…we knew that God is God, and he brought us there and we had a job to do so you did your job."

Carns concluded, “There’s a real sense of camaraderie and focus. And really a sense of purpose.”

This is Part 2 of a series. Part 1 can be read here

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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