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Ebola: Survivor’s story

Richard WalkerOctober 10, 2014

Nancy Writebol contracted Ebola while working as a missionary in Liberia. She survived after being airlifted back to the United States and receiving a rare course of the experimental drug ZMapp. She told DW her story.

Nancy Writebol working in Liberia
Image: D. Writebol

DW: Please describe the moment you first felt sick in Liberia.

Nancy Writebol: At first I felt like it was malaria. It was just a high fever, there were no other symptoms. I had a headache to go along with that, but that's very normal for malaria. And so I had the malaria test done, our doctor did the test. And it was positive for malaria. So I went home and took malaria medication - and for four days, I stayed at home and rested, and took the meds. And on that Saturday I still wasn't feeling well. And so our doctor said, "Nancy, I want to run an Ebola test. I don't think it is Ebola - you don't have any other symptoms - but we're going to set everybody's mind at ease." So they ran the Ebola test and that evening, we received the results that I was positive.

Your condition became very serious. Were you conscious most of the time?

In and out of consciousness. My husband David said there were days when I would sit up and talk to him and I would eat a little bit. I would remember some of it, but I don't remember a lot of it. I remember just sleeping a lot - and I remember how dreary the days were, and rainy. And I was very, very weak. I couldn't get up by myself, so the doctors and nurses had to help me. Every day I just seemed to get weaker and weaker. So it was very hard.

Nancy Writebol talking to Richard Walker
Ebola survivor Nancy Writebol told her story to DW's Richard WalkerImage: DW/R. Walker

As part of your treatment you received the experimental serum, ZMapp. You were one of of just six people to get it. Did you feel at all conflicted about that?

Not at that point. Because it was an experimental drug, the question in our minds was - do I really want to take an experimental drug? There was a point where I called Dr Kent Brantly [a colleague who also contracted Ebola] on the phone and we talked about it because he had been studying it. And I said, "Are you going to take the drug?" And he said, "I'm not sure that I am." And I said, "If you're not going to take it, I'm not going to take it either!" So, I think at that point I was more wondering, "OK here's an experimental drug - nobody's tested this? What's going to be the outcome?" But then it got to the place where it was like, if I took it and I got better, that would be great. And if I took it and I didn't survive, well that would be OK too, because I might not have survived without it. Your mind goes through all those different dilemmas of what is happening.

In early August you were flown by private jet to the US for treatment at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. What do you remember of the journey?

When they put me on the airplane and I said goodbye to David, I wondered if I would see him again. I was very, very sick, and I don't know that the doctors even knew if I would survive the flight. I remember the doctor or the nurse that took care of me, who put me on the airplane. His compassion and his care for me was just really kind. Before he put me on the conveyor belt of the airplane, he put his hands around my face and said, "Nancy, we're taking you home. We're going to take really good care of you." On the flight, I remember being very, very thirsty. I was very dehydrated. Then I just remember the places that we landed. They would come and tell me, "We're going to land now." And we'd be there for a few minutes, and then we'd take off again. I don't remember them telling me we were landing in Atlanta. I knew when we were in Maine, they said to me "We're not very far from Atlanta. It'll be a little bit longer." So those were the memories, I think I must have been really out of it for that flight!

Eventually you began to recover...

I remember the day the doctor came in and he said, Nancy, he said, you have turned the corner! And he said, um, you will survive! And I remember him saying that part of my test was clear for Ebola. And I just said, "Praise God!" It was an exciting time, I remember thinking, "I'm going to hold my new grandbaby!" It was really a joyful time to just know that I was going to survive and be able to see our kids again and see David again. It just totally changes the way you think about things and people and what you're doing in life. So I was very, very grateful. And I know that, even though there was medicine, there was Zmapp, there was the supportive care, there was a blood transfusion. Um all of those things God used to help save my life. I know that. And I'm very grateful for that.

Were people wary of you as you returned to everyday life?

There have been some people who have recognized me and put their hands up and not wanted to be close. The first time that happened to me, I was taken aback. The second time it happened, I just thought about our Liberian brothers and sisters who are in many ways treated the same way. Especially healthcare workers whose families are saying, "Don't come home. Stay somewhere else." Or the burial teams in Africa. Their families are not wanting them to come home because they're so afraid of Ebola.

As an Ebola survivor, you have some degree of immunity to the virus. Do you think you will go back to Liberia to help again?

It does mean that I could go back. But the doctors have told me that if I go back, I still need to put on the personal protective gear, which is really important. They don't know how long the immunity lasts, or how strong the immunity will be. I think there is an important point in going back. But I also think there's a really important point in being part of the platform. Of being able to speak and raise the level of awareness of what is happening with this crisis in West Africa, so that vaccinations can be made, so that serum can be made - and so that when Ebola hits again, there is help for Africa.

The interview was conducted by DW's Richard Walker, Charlotte, North Carolina.