By Ray Henry
ATLANTA – An American doctor infected with the Ebola virus in Africa arrived for treatment in Atlanta Saturday in a specially equipped plane and was whisked away in an ambulance and able to walk under his own power into a hospital with one of the most sophisticated isolation units in the country, officials say.
It marks the first time anyone infected with Ebola, considered one of the world’s deadliest diseases, is believed to have been brought into the country for treatment. A second American aid worker infected with the virus was expected to arrive at Emory within a couple days. U.S. officials are confident the patients can be treated without putting the public in danger.
The private plane outfitted with a special, portable tent designed for transporting patients with highly infectious diseases arrived late morning at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, spokesman Lt. Col. James Wilson confirmed. Dr. Kent Brantly, who was infected while treating Ebola patients in Liberia for the U.S.-based aid group Samaritan’s Purse, was taken from the plane into a waiting ambulance.
The ambulance from Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital left the base in Marietta, Georgia, drove, without lights or sirens, the 15 miles or so toward Emory University Hospital where Brantly and the other aid worker will be treated. The ambulance was flanked only by a few SUVs and a police car for the short trip to the hospital along a wide-open Interstate with little to no traffic.
Once at the hospital, a person in white protective clothing from head to toe climbed down from the back of the ambulance. Another person in the same type of hazmat-looking suit took the man’s gloved hands and guided him toward an Emory building. Kent Brantly’s wife, Amber, said her husband was able to walk into the hospital.
“It was a relief to welcome Kent home today,” she said in a statement. “I spoke with him, and he is glad to be back in the U.S. I am thankful to God for his safe transport and for giving him the strength to walk into the hospital.”
The second patient, Nancy Writebol, will be brought from Africa soon, the hospital has said. The two seriously ill Americans worked for North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse and U.S.-based SIM at a Liberian hospital that treated Ebola patients. Liberia is one of the three West Africa countries hit by the largest Ebola outbreak in history.
Dr. Jay Varkey, an infectious disease specialist at Emory who will be involved in Brantly’s care, said the hospital’s isolation unit is well-equipped to handle patients with diseases that are even more infectious than Ebola. The hospital is located just down a hill from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Its special unit was used for treating at least one SARS patient in 2005. Unlike Ebola, SARS — like the flu — is an airborne virus and can spread easily when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Health experts say a specialized isolation unit is not needed for treating an Ebola patient. Standard rigorous infection control measures should work at any hospital.
“Ebola is only transmitted through blood and bodily fluids,” he said. “Unlike the flu, like influenza, which we deal with every winter, Ebola cannot be spread thorugh the air.”
Ebola begins with fever, headache and weakness and can escalate to vomiting, diarrhea and kidney and liver problems. In some cases, patients bleed both internally and externally.
Dr. Philip Brachman, an Emory University public health specialist who for many years headed the CDC’s disease detectives program, said Friday that since there is no cure, medical workers will try any modern therapy that can be done, such as better monitoring of fluids, electrolytes and vital signs.
“That’s all we can do for such a patient. We can make them feel comfortable” and let the body try to beat back the virus, he said.
It’s not known how Brantly was infected, but health care workers are among the most vulnerable because of their close contact with sick patients.
Brantly’s wife, Amber, and their two children, 3 and 5, had left Liberia for a wedding in the U.S. just days before her husband fell ill and quarantined himself. Last week, in a statement, she said they were fine. They had been staying in Texas.
Brantly went to medical school at Indiana University and did a four-year residency at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. Last October, he began a two-year fellowship with Samaritan’s Purse to serve as a general practitioner at a mission hospital outside the Liberia capital of Monrovia. He directed the hospital’s Ebola clinic when the outbreak reached that West Africa nation.
Medical Writer Mike Stobbe in New York, Medical Writer Marilynn Marchione in Milwaukee, and video journalists Johnny Clark and Ron Harris in Atlanta contributed to this report.