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

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 BrantlyView print quality image
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.

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.