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Distinguished IU alumnus Dr. Kent Brantly reflects on life after surviving an Ebola outbreak

Brantly was among five recent recipients of IU’s Distinguished Alumni Service Award

Nov 2, 2017

When Dr. Kent Brantly moved to Monrovia, Liberia, in 2013 with his wife, Amber, and their two children, they were on a path to fulfill their life’s goal of Christian service work. When the deadly Ebola outbreak came to them, their journey took an unexpected turn.

Brantly, an Indiana native and a recent recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Service Award who earned his medical degree from the Indiana University School of Medicine in 2009, was suddenly in the midst of responding to a disaster.

Kent Brantly
Dr. Kent Brantly

“Ebola, if anything, heightened our sense of purpose for being there; help was needed all the more,” Brantly said. “We chose to stay and join the fight knowing that it’s possible we could die, but thinking that was incredibly unlikely.”

As Brantly began treating patients with Ebola, he watched most people infected with the disease die and had seen one survivor.

He knew what it could mean when he woke up with a fever and later tested positive for Ebola.

“Ebola is not only painful – headaches, body aches, unrelenting fever, uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea – it’s also terrifying. When you know what it is – most people die,” he said. “It’s not only physically difficult but emotionally difficult.”

After receiving a dose of an experimental drug called ZMapp, Brantly was evacuated to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. He was the first American to return to the United States to be treated for Ebola. Brantly became one of the lucky few who would survive the disease.

A member of the IU family

Not long after Brantly left the hospital in Atlanta to finish his recovery at home, he received a package in the mail from his alma mater. It was a binder from the IU School of Medicine filled with hundreds of cards from alumni, classmates and friends he’d gone to school with from 2005 to 2009 while he was studying medicine in Indianapolis.

It also included notes from people who had attended IU in the 1950s and ’60s. They were messages of encouragement and pride. The memory of those letters still brings tears to Brantly’s eyes.

“The alumni family spread out from all over the country saw me as part of their family and reached out with a kind word to encourage me, to support me, to have compassion on me in the midst of my difficulty – that meant a lot,” he said. “It reached me, and I read it, and I am filled with gratitude for their love.”

Brantly credits his time as an IU student for giving him the strength he needed when the Ebola outbreak found him in Monrovia.

“I did my training in family medicine in Fort Worth, Texas,” he said. “I learned my specialty and grew a lot there, but IU is where I learned to be a doctor – where I learned the sacred nature of the physician-patient relationship and the sacred honor of this profession.”

Under the guidance of Dr. Richard Gunderman and others at the IU School of Medicine, Brantly discovered that practicing medicine was more than a business, job or occupation. It was a vocation, a calling, a profession. He began to see how his work as a doctor would overlap with his faith.

“Holding on to that foundation is what grounds you and gives you what is needed, the courage or the perseverance or the endurance, as a doctor in the face of an Ebola outbreak,” he said.

A lesson that crosses borders

Although Africa may seem far away from Hoosierland where he grew up watching Indiana basketball, Brantly hopes people begin to feel more connected to distant places.

“The Ebola outbreak served as a very clear lesson that we live in an interconnected, global community, and geography no longer protects us from the afflictions suffered by people on the other side of the world,” he said. “The well-being of all of us is directly connected to the well-being of each of us, and we are all as vulnerable as our most vulnerable neighbor. That fact can do one of two things: either induce fear and the desire to withdraw and begin building walls around ourselves to protect us from the outside, or motivate us with compassion to say we’re all in this together, so let’s link arms and seek the good of all of us together.”

Long before the Ebola outbreak hit the news, researchers were studying the virus and trying to find ways to help those who were infected. It was their collaboration, to share discoveries and advancements in an effort to help the common good, that truly made the difference.

“ZMapp was not the product of one scientist in one lab,” Brantly said.

“It is critical for institutions like IU and the IU School of Medicine to be seeking out partnerships and collaborations with others who are seeking to make a difference in the world to find preventions and treatments,” he said.

A life-changing experience

Although Brantly would recover from Ebola and be lucky enough to be among those who do not feel lingering physical effects of the disease, his life has changed completely from what he had planned.

“My diagnosis, illness and recovery have had unmeasurable impact on my life,” he said.

Brantly has become an advocate and voice for those without one to plead for help and ask people to choose compassion over fear. At the same time, this new opportunity to help others has been bittersweet, as the plans for service that he and his wife had when they got married and moved to Monrovia were interrupted very unexpectedly.

“It’s completely sincere and true when we both say we long to get back to the work we were doing before Ebola, but at the same time we recognize the tremendous privilege it has been to do the things we’ve done for the last three years,” he said.

After his recovery from Ebola, Brantly met President Barack Obama and has spoken to thousands of people – doctors, residents and medical students, high schoolers, teachers and church-goers – and he’s shared his story through media interviews like his inclusion as a Person of the Year in Time magazine.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Five Indiana University alumni will receive IU’s Distinguished Alumni Service Award on Oct. 12 during homecoming weekend. It is the university’s highest award given only to an alumna or alumnus.

The recipients are Dr. Kent Brantly of Fort Worth, Texas; Roselyn Cole of Indianapolis; Alice Jordan-Miles of Fort Wayne; Raymond E. Pavy of New Castle; and John F. “Jeff” Richardson of Washington, D.C.

IU President Michael A. McRobbie will present the awards to the honorees. Brieanna Quinn, national chair of the IU Alumni Association, will preside at the presentation ceremony in Alumni Hall at the Indiana Memorial Union.

The Distinguished Alumni Service Award recipients were chosen for service and achievement in their fields of endeavor and significant contributions to the community, state, nation or university. With the addition of these recipients, IU has honored 335 alumni since the award’s inception in 1953.

Following are brief individual bios for each award recipient.

Dr. Kent Brantly

When Ebola patients began to arrive at the Liberian hospital where Dr. Kent Brantly, along with his wife, Amber, was serving a two-year missionary trip with the international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, he donned protective gear and worked 18-hour shifts in an isolation ward.

As a result of his commitment to caring for those afflicted with the virus, Brantly became infected himself. Despite a 105-degree fever, he refused an experimental drug because there was only enough for one person, and a colleague was very ill. Eventually, both were sent to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where they recovered.

Brantly, a 2009 graduate of the IU School of Medicine, was later featured in Time magazine, along with other Ebola medical workers, as one of its 2014 Persons of the Year. 

Continuing his humanitarian mission, Brantly has donated his plasma to treat other Ebola patients and makes regular speeches to share his experiences and lessons from his ordeal. He served as an adviser to former President Barack Obama and was the 2015 commencement speaker for the IU School of Medicine.

“He is simply one of those rare people whose heart is in exactly the right place, and whose deep faith and humanity shine through in everything he does,” said Dr. Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s Professor in the IU School of Medicine, the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI and the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, in his letter recommending Brantly for the service award.

Brantly now serves as medical missions adviser for Samaritan’s Purse and lives with his family in Texas.

Roselyn Cole

A highly respected speech and hearing therapist, Roselyn Cole, of Indianapolis, is also a staunch advocate for the rights of children to receive and be involved in quality programming. In addition, the 1960 IU graduate has been a stalwart supporter of her alma mater.

Cole spent much of her career in South Bend, where she was promoted to several positions in the school system before moving to Indianapolis to run a day care center. She expanded that facility into one of the city’s most respected early-childhood learning centers, and she continues her leadership in that arena.

She is a charter member of the Neal-Marshall Alumni Club, a life member of the IU Alumni Association and a member of the IU Varsity Club. Cole is also a recipient of the IUAA’s Gertrude Rich Award, honoring the memory of the wife of former IUAA director Claude Rich. The award is given each year to an alumna who best exemplifies the spirit of Gertrude Rich in making outstanding contributions to the IUAA.

John Hobson, retired senior vice president of the IUAA, supported Cole’s nomination to receive the service award, citing her devotion to and advocacy for IU, the IUAA and the Neal-Marshall Alumni Club as well as her demonstrated love and dedication to the field of education and the child care profession.

“Roselyn’s fine work and contributions assure that IU becomes a true and shining example of scholarship, diversity and equal opportunity for all,” Hobson said.

Alice Jordan-Miles

Alice Jordan-Miles, a lifelong resident of Fort Wayne, has served her community and Indiana University with energy, commitment and enthusiasm. One recommendation letter for her service award, written by Martin Vargas, president of the IU Latino Alumni Association, lists three words that describe her: inspiring, humble and lifesaving.

Jordan-Miles earned IU degrees in criminal justice and education and has put her degrees to work in suicide prevention, mentoring and service. Her 30 years of community involvement include advising youth from at-risk communities. Along with the Northeast Indiana Alumni chapter, she founded the Hoosiers of Tomorrow mentoring program, which matches local alumni with high school students interested in attending IU. Currently, she provides community leadership for concerns related to behavioral health and family studies.

The first in a family of 13 to obtain a college degree, Jordan-Miles has served her alma mater as president of the Latino Alumni Association, as a member of the IUAA Executive Council and as a recommender to the IU Groups program. She is a recipient of the IUAA’s President’s Award.

In her community, Jordan-Miles has been honored with several professional awards, including the 2011 Allen County Professional Women of Color Association’s Woman of Honor Award and the 2012 Fort Wayne Top 101 Connectors by the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly.

Raymond E. Pavy

Coach, educator, inspiration. Those words all describe Ray Pavy, a high school basketball legend and a promising IU guard until an automobile accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Although the accident ended his playing career, Pavy returned to IU to resume working toward his career goal of becoming a basketball coach. Thought to be IU’s first wheelchair-bound student, Pavy received assistance from professors and fraternity brothers to attend classes. A 1965 graduate of IU, he earned graduate degrees from Ball State University.

Pavy had a successful seven-year coaching career in Indiana with Sulphur Springs and Shenandoah high schools and later became assistant superintendent of the New Castle schools, from which he retired after 31 years.

Inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990, Pavy has been honored by Ball State with its Disabled Student Development’s Outstanding Alumnus Award and by IU, where he received the coveted Clevenger Award. He attends almost every IU football and basketball game, driving to games in his wheelchair-accessible van.

IU trustee Jim Morris describes Pavy as “one of the most extraordinary graduates in the history of Indiana University.”

“What he has accomplished with his life is truly extraordinary,” Morris said. “I have been so proud of the man’s service to public education and how he has inspired thousands of Hoosiers for the last 40 years.”

Jeff Richardson

Jeff Richardson has noted that “My family says I zipped through school in 12 years.” While he did spend more time at IU than the average student, he came away with three degrees and a background that prepared him for a life of public service and advocacy for social justice.

As a student, Richardson was a leading proponent for elevating men’s soccer to varsity status. He served as vice president and then president of the student body at IU Bloomington. He later became the first full-time student elected to the city council. As a council member, Richardson worked to found the city’s youth shelter, pass landlord/tenant laws that still endure, and get handicapped accessibility and bike paths in place on campus.

“His activity goes far beyond personal service, to lasting policy changes,” said former Bloomington mayor Tomi Allison, who also served with Richardson on the city council. “That is his legacy.”

Richardson began his professional career at Eli Lilly and Co. He worked for former Bloomington mayor and U.S. Rep. Frank McCloskey and later for Gov. Evan Bayh as secretary of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration and commissioner of the Indiana Department of Human Services.

He was senior vice president of the Global Health Care Practice at Burson-Marsteller, was executive vice president of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and recently retired as vice president of AbbVie Foundation, where he oversaw international giving programs. He previously oversaw Abbott Fund’s global health access program, which focuses on HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, nutrition, and noncommunicable and neglected tropical diseases.

Richardson has received numerous honors, including a Sagamore of the Wabash, induction into IU’s President’s Circle and the IU Maurer School of Law’s Academy of Law Alumni Fellows, and Distinguished Alumni Awards from both SPEA and the Maurer School of Law.

About the IU Alumni Association

The IU Alumni Association is a global alumni organization that brings more than 660,000 IU graduates together to support one another and Indiana University throughout their lives. The IUAA activates IU’s powerful network through live events, webinars, scholarship programs and seriously fun traditions.

His receipt of the IU Distinguished Alumni Service Award is a recent example of a recognition he may never have received if it weren’t for his experience in sub-Saharan Africa.

He’s humbled by the award, the university’s highest honor given only to an IU alumna or alumnus. As he considers the other recipients of the award, Brantly feels the responsibility of such an honor.

“They are all such incredible individuals who have spent decades giving back to the community, university, world, and they have made really remarkable differences in their communities and have done so for a very long time,” he said. “It’s really humbling to think they would bestow this honor on me.”

During a homecoming weekend ceremony when Brantly received the honor with four other recipients, he said he felt the responsibility of upholding the dignity and respect of such an honor.

Along with Brantly, IU President Michael A. McRobbie also presented the award to Roselyn Cole of Indianapolis, Alice Jordan-Miles of Fort Wayne, Raymond E. Pavy of New Castle and John F. “Jeff” Richardson of Washington, D.C.

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