It’s been almost five months since Dr. Richard Sacra was released from Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha after a 20-day battle with the deadly Ebola virus. But he’s ready to get back to work. Sacra contracted Ebola in Liberia at the end of August after working in a hospital clinic for medical volunteers under SIM, an international Christian mission organization. On Thursday, Jan. 15, Sacra will return again to Liberia.
This time though, it will be different.
When Sacra decided to return to Liberia in August (he had lived and worked there off and on for 15 years previously), he was answering the call of a struggling hospital clinic in crisis. Dr. Kent Brantly had fallen ill after contracting the deadly virus, and nurse Nancy Writebol was being evacuated the day Sacra landed in Monrovia, the district at the center of the outbreak where ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa) Hospital was located.
“It was a crisis moment—the hospital was closed and we were trying to get it reopened,’’ Sacra told Boston.com. “Now it’s more like there are already people running with the ball, and I’m just hopping in to try to give it all a little push.’’
It’s a little less stressful this time, to say the least. Sacra is there to lend a hand and help relieve some of SIM’s overburdened staff who have been working around the clock to address patient needs. And not just those with Ebola—the health crisis has compromised the hospital’s ability to care for all of its patients. Sick children and pregnant women haven’t been able to see a doctor in months because of the daunting and overwhelming Ebola crisis.
Sacra said he’s hoping to do some work with the medical school there as well. Unfortunately, many of its faculty have left the country or lost their lives treating Ebola patients. Sacra is preparing himself for the absences—the faces he won’t see, the colleagues who have lost their lives battling for the lives of their patients.
“I know it’s going to be difficult seeing friends who have lost loved ones,’’ said Sacra. “But I need to give them support for what they’ve been through. For instance, there’s a doctor who passed away in October, and I’m going to see his wife—that’s going to be heavy.’’
Sacra described the impact of these losses in an editorial he wrote for The Boston Globe about his experience in October:
More than 180 health care workers in Liberia contracted Ebola between June and September, with 89 dying. The fear is real and palpable — many have been to colleagues’ funerals. When I contracted Ebola, I could see a complex look on the faces of my co-workers — a mixture of prayerful hope that I would recover, concern about maintaining proper precautions, but also the thought If our doctor got this thing . . . What about me?
Overall, Sacra said he is excited about returning to work. He said he started to feel 100 percent on Nov. 1, though his wife, Debbie, said it took a bit longer.
“More like Thanksgiving,’’ she said. “So that’s about two months. He still needed a lot of sleep and still had limited energy for other activities, and his eye was still bothering him.’’
One lingering complication from Sacra’s recovery has been uveitis—in other words, an inflamed eye. Apparently the virus caused Sacra’s white blood cells to cluster in his eyes, and regaining his vision has been one of the more prominent complications during his recovery. But at 95 percent, Sacra estimates it won’t affect his work in Liberia very much.
For Debbie Sacra, it wasn’t a matter of if her husband would go back, but when. She said it’s a lot easier this time around to let him go because of his immunity to the virus. “It’s a lot easier for me to say, ‘Okay, no problem!’’’ she joked.
Sacra plans to return to the United States in February for some previously scheduled events, catch up on sleep, and then possibly plan another trip this summer. With immunity to Ebola, he doesn’t anticipate that the 21-day self-monitoring will apply to him upon his return, but he said he’s spoken at length with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health about the possibility.
“Thankfully the state of Massachusetts has been pretty sensible and moderate and has gone with the CDC guidelines for the most part with their precautions,’’ said Sacra. “Being here in Massachusetts won’t be too bad [when I return]. This is a discussion we’ve had with Mass. DPH, but they don’t make promises. They said these decisions get made at the time.’’
As of Jan. 7, there have been a total of 8,517 cases of Ebola and 3,496 deaths in Liberia, but health officials are saying the worst of the outbreak has passed. School starts again in February, and everyone is just now trying to return to normal. But the fight isn’t over.
“Even if Ebola is finished in West Africa, if we don’t continue to strengthen the health system there, then even if it’s not Ebola, they’re going to be vulnerable to some other disease, so we need to focus on rebuilding the healthcare system there,’’ said Sacra.