The Race to Save Dr. Brantly: The Inside Story
Sept. 12, 2014 -- Peering into the small house in Liberia where Kent Brantly was bedridden and quarantined with Ebola, there was no doubt in Dr. Lance Plyler’s mind that his friend and colleague was going to die.
Brantly, a 33-year-old doctor just months out of his residency, had come to Liberia in October to serve on a 2-year medical mission. He had two young children.
“When I looked in the window, it just hit me like a ton of bricks,” says Plyler, an internal medicine specialist. He is the medical director of disaster response for Samaritan’s Purse, the missionary organization both men were working for in Africa.
Brantly was burning with a nearly 105-degree fever, his breathing was too fast and too shallow, and his blood oxygen was very low, says Plyler, who is also trained in palliative care for dying patients.
“I’ve been doing internal medicine for 25 years, so I’m not an alarmist. But … I was certain he had a couple of hours to live, at best.”
Plyler knew he had something that might save the young doctor’s life, or hasten his demise. It was up to him to make the decision. And he prayed.
Race Against Time
Just a week earlier, Plyler, who was Brantly’s boss, had received the bad news.
A scientist at the NIH reference lab that was testing Brantly’s blood samples for Ebola texted Plyler a coded message.
“We had a pseudonym for Kent so it wouldn’t raise alarm, but his name was Tamba Snell. The text read, ‘I am very sad to inform you that Tamba Snell is positive.’” Tamba is a common Liberian name.
“I’ll never forget it as long as I live, because it was my worst moment in Liberia,” Plyler says.
With the diagnosis confirmed, Plyler started a frantic search for something to help his friend and another American, Nancy Writebol, who had also caught the virus. He got on his phone and computer, making hour after hour of urgent inquiries, trying to find a way to save their lives. He contacted experts at the CDC, NIH, and the Public Health Agency of Canada. Through those experts, he learned about two promising experimental treatments, ZMapp and TKM-Ebola.