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Mercy for the Merciful: Alumna Colleen Kraft cares for Ebola-infected American mercy workers

  • By: Jim Garringer
  • Published: Jan 13, 2015 12:30PM
Dr. Colleen Kraft treated Ebola victims at Emory University Hospital

Ebola. In recent months the name of this deadly disease has advanced from obscurity to take its place as one of the world’s most feared illnesses. For years images of sick and dying Africans have spilled into America’s living rooms, but Ebola is different.

For some, the wars that have raged in Africa, the famines that have ravished its people, and the religious persecution that has enslaved many of its African adherents were issues that, while tragic, had no immediate impact on us. 

That changed when two American mercy workers infected with the disease were returned to the United States for life-saving treatment.

When Samaritan’s Purse doctor Kent Brantley and Serving In Mission nurse Nancy Writebol returned to America, a debate raged over whether or not Americans infected with the deadly illness should be allowed back into the States for treatment. Fueling that debate were fears of an Ebola epidemic sweeping through the country.

For Dr. Colleen (Kendrick ’98) Kraft, there was and is no controversy.

Kraft is a doctor at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Ga., where the illness made its American landfall. She was a member of the medical team that nursed Brantly and Writebol back to health. And she did not see a threat—only a brother and sister in the Lord who desperately needed her help.

“They were pretty sick when they got here,” Kraft remembers. “They were both weak and had abnormal heart rhythms. They were not the sickest we have ever cared for, but it was not guaranteed they were going to survive.” 

According to the World Health Organization, Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), formerly known as Eboly Hemorrhagic Fever, is a severe, often fatal illness. The virus began in animals and was transmitted, it is believed, to humans when those infected animals were eaten.

From its human hosts, the virus spreads in the larger population through human-to-human contact. Roughly 50 percent of Ebola sufferers die from the disease. At the time this was written there was no vaccine.

Kraft’s specialty is microbiology and infectious diseases. She has performed research in areas including human rhinovirus and HIV/AIDS superinfection. Ebola is classified as an RNA virus, the same category as influenza, hepatitis C, the common cold, measles and polio. Kraft said Ebola transmits between humans when one comes in contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids—making Ebola infectious rather than contagious, but still deadly.

“Ebola begins with fever and weakness, like influenza. There is malaise, and one gets achy, lethargic, really tired, and really weak,” Kraft says. “There is nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. We don’t entirely know when it turns hemorrhagic and causes you to bleed out. The other thing we think people are dying from is heart arrhythmia from not enough potassium because of so much diarrhea and vomiting.”

While Kraft expressed confidence that an Ebola epidemic in the United States is unlikely, she said there are still questions about how Brantly and Writebol—both of whom wore protective suits when treating Ebola sufferers—were infected.

“As far as he knows, he did not have a break in his suit. He may have cleaned a bathroom not wearing the right outfit. It is a little confusing, and that is what makes it scary. We did not have a sense of how either Nancy or Kent got it,” Kraft says. “In the United States, we have complete disposal of everything and they do not [in West Africa]. They have to reuse things. Also, the conditions in which you are working could be part of it. In the United States, you have four nurses for two patients. In West Africa, it is one [medical professional] for twenty [patients]. You can have patients vomiting, and there are infected body fluids that cannot be cleaned up.”

The care for Brantly and Writebol included rehydration and a blood transfusion from a child who had contracted Ebola and survived.

Kraft says some of her colleagues’ family members were concerned about the level of danger in being in close contact with Brantly and Writebol, but she, her husband Andy ’96, and their children were never concerned.

“In making a connection with the patients, I felt more ministered to by them,” says Kraft. “I think they felt comforted by having a committed Christian caring for them. One of the things Kent said was he was concerned that there would be a lot of physical care but not spiritual care. Several of us were committed Christians and ministered to them in that way.” 

To those who question why Brantly and Writebol or any other Ebola sufferer should be returned to the United States for treatment, Kraft has a loving but straightforward response:

“It is very clear that by bringing them back we raised awareness. Our understanding of this disease went from a rudimentary knowledge to being able to actually give input as to how to care for people and what incurs the greatest risk of transmission of this disease. We may be able to prevent further outbreaks and deaths with the knowledge we have gained in a short period of time.

“The world would not be as focused on the events in West Africa if not for that,” she continues. “If you spent an hour looking into the need in Liberia, you would understand that the need there is a one-million-fold greater there than here. God laid it on their hearts to minister in a very dark, depraved, desperate place. . . Kent Brantly was going to the suffering—by doing that he was suffering with them. He was leaving the comforts of the developed world to go help the population in the developing world.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Matthew 5:7