My father stood in front of me at the hotel. I could see his eyes fill with the gleam that can only be from tears. The ordeal he had gone through over the previous twenty-one days had stretched him to the brink. As my brother and I drove into the roundabout at the hotel we were faced with a decision: Should we hug our father?
On the evening of the 26th the Ebola test came back positive and confirmed the deep fear I had about my mom’s condition.For most, this question is simple. Of course you’d give your dad a hug. But for us, the question had all sorts of other implications. We were asking a question that characters in the most outlandish films speculate about. What if dad is infectious? What if our kids get it too? What if we start an outbreak of our own? What if dad has Ebola?
The first time my mother informed us of an Ebola outbreak in Western Africa was in early March. The hospital where she was serving had been made aware that there was a village some three or four hours away that had seen a few cases of the virus. My mom posted a note on her Facebook page asking us to pray.
As a family we often played the card game Killer Bunnies together and all got a laugh as someone would inevitably drop the “Ebola weapon” card and wipe out all the bunnies in play. There was however one security to this attack and that was the beloved “containment suit” card that protected one bunny from its demise. When my mom shared on her Facebook page the concern in Western Africa I, in jest, posted the containment suit on her page and told her to wear one and be safe.
On her birthday, mom was sick, but she was sure it was only malaria. Her malaria smear had come back positive and she was given antibiotics to deal with the illness. Five whole days passed and mom’s fever had not broken. She had just gotten worse. On the evening of the 26th the Ebola test came back positive and confirmed the deep fear I had about my mom’s condition.
I knew dad had been near and with mom since the 22nd. She was not isolated for care until the Ebola test came back positive, and just a few hours earlier she had eaten a meal with dad in their home. My mother’s contagion concerned me for my father’s sake. If there was anything that I knew to be true growing up in my parents home it was that my dad adored my mom. He was constantly kissing her in front of us. That didn’t change after we left the house. I was confident he too was infected.
Ebola victims often don’t know they have the virus until they become very sick. The incubation period for the virus is at least twenty-one days. Waiting for three weeks to discover if you are infected with Ebola can feel like one long, terrifying nightmare. Most of us at one point or another in the last three weeks have probably felt under the weather. Maybe it was just fatigue or eating something that didn’t agree with you. Compound those fears with the possibility that you may have been exposed to Ebola from a symptomatic patient and you have three weeks in front of you of nightmarish worry.
Each night on our way to the hotel, after being with mom, we would drive by a local restaurant with “Ebola Free Zone” pasted on their sign.As my brother and I began to discuss my dad’s repatriation to the States, the details made our heads spin. Just a few days before my mother was diagnosed, an American, Patrick Sawyer, knew he was sick with Ebola, disregarded health officials in Liberia, boarded a plane and flew from Monrovia to Ghana to Lagos, Nigeria. After he deplaned in Lagos he became very sick in the airport and was rushed to a hospital. Twenty people contracted the virus as a result of Sawyer’s actions and eight of those twenty died. While we were unsure if dad was infected as well, we were also eager not to put dad, or his mission organization, in a similar situation.
One option was to have dad hop on a commercial flight from Monrovia back to the United States. As we prayed about our options and began to discuss them with my father we couldn’t be settled in our hearts that putting dad on a commercial flight was the right option. We saw the fear rising from public comments on social media and even from members of our own families. If he was infected, if he was contagious, if he was sick, not only would we face the difficulty of getting him proper care, but we would also lose significant credibility and trust with the general public.
Our family has always determined that whatever we do, we wanted to do it for the glory of Christ and the love of our neighbors. Putting dad on a commercial flight felt irresponsible, if not negligent towards our neighbors. The public perception of my parents mission organization, SIM , and the greater perception of Christ hung in the balance.
Another solution that presented itself was having my dad, and the rest of the Serving In Mission team depart Monrovia by way of the Samaritan’s Purse DC-3 that made regular flights between Monrovia and Ghana. Getting from Ghana then back to the States was still another issue, and we still were not comfortable with dad getting on a commercial flight. We discovered that he was placed on a “no fly” list and the option for commercial transportation was immediately gone.
The least desirable offer was for my dad to wait out his twenty-one day assessment period in Liberia and then safely travel home as soon as possible. However, with mom’s recovery being far from certain and the issues facing our family, we knew dad needed to get home.
Dad was frustrated. He wanted to be with mom. At times he felt isolated and abandoned. Here he was, stuck in Africa with no clear way of returning home, displaying no symptoms of the virus in any way. His wife of forty years had been transported thousands of miles away from him to try and survive on her own. He wasn’t sick! Why shouldn’t he be able to come home?
I stood on a skywalk over the main street that runs through the university and hospital campus at Emory and watched as dozens of media vans and trucks settled along the road. From time to time the lights would come on at one tent; another news personality was talking about my mom and reporting on the situation, often inaccurately. Each night on our way to the hotel, after being with mom, we would drive by a local restaurant with “Ebola Free Zone” pasted on their sign. Later that week, the sign changed to “Get well Dr. Brantly and Nurse Writebol.” Still, we knew that people were afraid.
As my family and the leadership of SIM continued to talk and work toward bringing dad home, we knew the public trust was something we had to handle well. A private jet was secured for dad to be able to return to the United States. We were excited he was coming home. Still, the question remained; what would we do once he got here? He would still be in the incubation period for at least another week once he got home. Hotels weren’t a good idea, and the hospital couldn’t admit him if he wasn’t symptomatic. Family friends in Atlanta were going out of town for a few weeks and were ready to offer their home to my dad until they realized the neighborhood was a busy place and there were children in homes nearby. Again, the issue of the public trust was paramount.
Saying God’s gracious hand was on us does not feel like a cliché. Through much prayer and discussion a secure and wise solution presented itself. Dad would finish out the twenty-one day quarantine term at a remote and secluded compound set up for returning missionaries from Western Africa who had potentially been exposed to Ebola patients. SIM set up a special RV park on their expansive campus in southwest Charlotte that gave returning missionaries the necessary privacy, security, and distance to secure the public trust and keep a modicum of dignity for those returning.
As the days passed dad continued to stay healthy. He never had a fever, nor did he show any symptoms. His birthday was celebrated in quarantine with with BBQ, cake, and ice cream.
Finally, on August 17 the state of North Carolina Health Department issued a release and a clear bill of health for my dad to leave the quarantined area. His twenty-one day assessment period had passed and dad did not have Ebola. Yet the fear remained.
The Health Department and CDC had been very specific and intentional in their interviews with my dad about when he was last potentially exposed to the virus that my mom was so desperately fighting. Yet the fear of what we could not see or could not control remained. I still wondered if dad really was “in the clear.” My mind spun with wild visions of Ebola blazing out of control in Western Africa and my dad being exposed in some other person or some other way even after mom had already been evacuated. I knew dad had followed proper protocol, had stayed out of the isolation units and his home without proper Personal Protective Equipment (P.P.E.), and had limited his time being in the home with it. But I couldn’t see Ebola. I couldn’t tell if he had contact in other ways. I was concerned his clothing was hiding a dormant strain of the virus just waiting to find a new host and infect the next person. And now dad was coming to Atlanta. We would soon be reunited.
As dad and I talked on the phone the night before, I shared my fears with him. My worry was an unfounded worry. I desperately wanted to spend as much time with my dad as possible. I wanted to hug him and feel the comforting embrace of my father. I wanted to see the joy in his eyes as he was reunited with mom. I wanted to talk through the night about the events of the previous three weeks and how God had spared our family and been gracious to us.
But I also wanted to serve and love my family well. We were tense with fear of the unknown. I shared with my dad that I would be cautious when I was around him. I wasn’t going to hangout in his hotel room to talk, that we could do that in a public place. I didn’t want my wife to be afraid to hug me when I returned from Atlanta. I didn’t want my kids to have to stand three feet away from me for twenty-one days while we made sure that there was no transmission of the invisible virus. I wanted to be careful. I heard the pained understanding in my dad’s voice as we talked. The man who had been isolated from personal contact for three weeks, who I had not seen in over a year, asked the question, “Jeremy, will I at least get to hug you when I see you?”
Dad’s question haunted me all night. The next day my brother and I arrived at the hotel where we would meet our dad. I couldn’t wait to see him, but part of me felt I had to, just to be safe. Mom was about to be released from the hospital. Dad had spent three weeks self-monitoring for a fever and had been quarantined to make sure he was healthy. As we drove around the corner to the hotel I was fighting my own fear and suspicion of the the things that the medical examiners and C.D.C. staff had said about my dad: He was fine. He wasn’t carrying the virus. He was safe to hug.
As we pulled up to the hotel I saw my dad standing there with the family friends that had driven him down to Atlanta. The toll of the last month was evident on him. He looked tired, worn, thin, and depleted. His anxiety and stress were tangible. The physical toll of months of work in an extremely impoverished country were evident. The grey in his hair had advanced. The man who had raised me, encouraged me, and brought me to Christ was standing there with tired, eager eyes wondering if his oldest son would embrace him or stand in fear of the unknown.
But it wasn’t the unknown standing in front of me. It was my dad that I loved deeply. At the sight of him my fear and worry fled. Dad was safe and healthy. I didn’t need to overthink it. I just reached up and hugged my dad.
Jeremy Writebol (@jwritebol) is the son of Ebola survivor, Nancy Writebol. He is the is the husband of Stephanie and daddy of Allison and Ethan. He is the author of everPresent from GCD Books and writes at jwritebol.net.