American Ebola survivor Dr. Rick Sacra returns to Liberia this week

Dr. Rick Sacra, who survived Ebola, returns to Liberia Thursday to resume work as a medical missionary

Dr. Rick Sacra, a family physician from Massachusetts, is returning this week to the West African country where he contracted Ebola to resume work as a medical missionary.

Sacra, 52, won’t be working in the Ebola treatment units at ELWA hospital, on the outskirts of the Liberian capital, Monrovia.  But he told reporters Monday that he could be tapped to help screen patients for the deadly virus, in addition to treating those with other serious health conditions.

Ebola survivors, who have immunity, have been playing important roles in West Africa caring for the sick and orphans of the disease, as well as doing public health education.  Sacra plans to relieve colleagues at ELWA for about a month. 

“They’ve been working very hard for months and frankly they need a little bit of a breather,” he said at an upbeat news conference at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, where he serves on the faculty.

His wife, Debbie, said her husband has been taking about returning to Africa since he was discharged from the hospital, and the family supports his decision to go on Thursday.

“We know that there is a need. We know that he has a big contribution to make. So we’re happy that he’s only going for a few weeks,” she said.

Ebola has taken a heavy toll on the already fragile health systems in the hardest-hit countries. In Liberia alone, there have been at least 370 Ebola cases among health workers, of whom 178 have died, according to the latest figures released by the World Health Organization.  

Treatment for other ailments collapsed in many areas, with both staff and patients too afraid to go to medical facilities in case they too became infected.

Sacra, who has spent years working in Liberia, volunteered to return in August with the Christian aid group SIM to help restore services at ELWA after two American missionaries, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, contracted Ebola along with three Liberian staffers.  

He spent nearly three weeks in isolation at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha before he was discharged in September. Since then, there have been a few “bumps in the road,” he told reporters. 

He was briefly readmitted to the hospital in October with a cough and a low grade fever; a test for Ebola came back negative. He had to undergo physical therapy to regain his strength. And he was treated for inflammation in his left eye.

But he said Monday, “My doctor has now cleared me for a full return to work and has said I’m well enough to return to Liberia.”

“In fact the experts tell me I’m immune. I don’t plan to test that but I am grateful for it,” he said, smiling.

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