Evangelism in the Ebola epidemic
Lita Cosner chats with Dr Deborah (Debbie) Eisenhut
Debbie Eisenhut is a medical missionary with SIM, a faith-based international mission agency, see sim.org. Debbie was born and raised in Salem, Oregon, attended Oregon State University, and then completed medical school at University of Oregon Health Sciences Center in Portland, Oregon. She did her general surgery training at University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio, Texas. Debbie practiced general surgery for over 20 years in Salem, Oregon before becoming a medical missionary.
Debbie became a Christian as a small girl, but began to seek God for herself as a young teenager. She felt called to medical missions as a high schooler. After her medical training, Debbie says, “By the time I finished my residency, I felt spiritually and emotionally drained. Medical school debt was also an issue! I didn’t feel called to go to the mission field right away but I still wanted to be prepared.”
Preparation at home
She realized that even though she was a Christian she did not have the tools to defend her faith, and realized that this would be important for when she became a missionary. “I knew evolution was wrong, but I had no confidence when it came to defending the Bible. So I joined Bible Study Fellowship where I served as a discussion leader. And as my knowledge about the Bible increased, my own faith grew.”
Geology posed a particular problem for Debbie, so she took a community college course. “Reading The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris (1961) really made the difference for me. I understood the earth didn’t really look old at all; I just hadn’t known what I was looking at!” She studied as much as she could and began going to creation conferences.
As preparation for the mission field, Debbie was very involved in her local church. “That is where God does His work! If you aren’t involved in evangelism and work in your local church you won’t be an effective missionary when you go across the world.”
Although Debbie felt fulfilled serving in her local church and in her medical practice, she still felt led to the mission field full-time. After receiving affirmation from her pastor, Bible study leader, and family that this was something she should pursue, she gave a year’s notice at her practice and applied to mission organizations.
Missionary work overseas
In 2007, she went to Pakistan where she was stationed for almost 4 years but wasn’t able to be involved in much surgery. She changed mission agencies to SIM which sent her to Liberia to serve at ELWA Hospital (Eternal Love Winning Africa) near Monrovia. “I was just doing surgery there and being a normal missionary doctor. We were trying to revitalize the hospital in every area: physically, medically, spiritually, and financially. I was one of only three western-trained expatriates there at the time. We were planning to start a family practice residency.”
Liberia considers itself to be a Christian country though 20 percent of the population is Muslim, “but both Christianity and Islam tend to just be a veneer over the folk religions.” So even though her medical work was tremendously important, her missionary work was even more needed. “People often think that if you just educate people and give them money it will fix their problems. But their primary problem is spiritual. Liberia has been traumatized by a 14-year civil war, and they’re still afraid of each other. There’s also tremendous fear of evil spirits. Some people think we should not do missionary work because people are happy the way they are, but that’s just not true. There’s a tremendous amount of bondage and fear and this spiritual problem breeds all the other problems in the society. So spiritual renewal through faith in Jesus Christ is the key to a real lasting impact.”
Preparing for Ebola
In March 2014, Ebola hit West Africa.1 “It had always been a Central African disease; no one had considered West Africa to be at risk.” A number of factors contributed to the severity of the epidemic. The borders are porous, and people are very mobile, meaning the virus can spread rapidly.
Debbie and her team saw the need to be prepared for the possibility of an Ebola patient coming to their hospital. “We started training the entire staff, using makeshift equipment at first—bandanas, kitchen aprons, surgical gowns. We even trained the cashiers. Money is dirty so we trained them not to eat or lick their fingers while they were counting the money. It’s a fragile virus so basic hygiene measures like handwashing and using diluted bleach solution will kill it.”
They also constructed a makeshift Ebola ward (ELWA 1) in the hospital’s chapel, knowing that an Ebola patient could not be treated alongside their other patients, and constructed a triage tent. Samaritan’s Purse (SP) funded and supplied the efforts at ELWA Hospital and later also sent medical personnel to help.
The preparations paid off when they received their first Ebola patient on 12 June 2014. An epidemiologist with Samaritan’s Purse correctly predicted that the epidemic would explode in numbers so they (SP) converted an unfinished building in the new hospital into a 25-bed unit (ELWA 2) and also started construction on a large tent hospital (ELWA 3).
One effect of the training and preparation was that no ELWA staff members died from Ebola contracted on the job at ELWA Hospital. “It’s sad, because many of the people in Liberia contracted Ebola because they were ‘good Samaritans’ or caregivers. So many health-care workers in Liberia were infected because they did not have access to hand-washing facilities in their institutions or were not provided gloves. Many took care of patients with their bare hands. Also, most health care workers in West Africa run an unofficial clinic from their homes for their neighbours and friends. People come to them asking to be given a shot or have an IV started. In this way many health care workers in West Africa contracted Ebola and many died.
Two missionaries, Dr Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol, contracted Ebola and needed to be evacuated for treatment. When this happened there was a lot of worry in the media that they would bring Ebola to the US and start an epidemic, but Debbie explains that this was very unlikely. “This concern was completely overblown. There was no medical reason not to bring them back. We know that Ebola is passed on in a manner similar to HIV infection—by sharing of body fluids.2 If contacts are identified, monitored, and isolated as indicated there is no danger to the general public.”
Kent and Nancy were evacuated via a special plane that was originally meant to be used if a diplomat or politician developed Ebola. It had been sitting in a hangar for 12 years, never used! The contract was changed to allow it to be used to transport the two infected missionaries. The other missionaries, who had been exposed to Ebola but not infected, were evacuated in an ordinary jet from the same aircraft company, which was the only one willing to fly into Monrovia at that time. “They were not afraid, because they were used to danger. They told us they had flown a State Department team into Libya the day after the Benghazi incident!”3
When Debbie returned to ELWA Hospital in May 2015, the staff thanked her for her part in the training and preparation. But Debbie says she shouldn’t get the credit for the success of ELWA’s Ebola preparations. “Thank Jesus! We made lots of mistakes, but we did what God gave us the ability to do. Then God covered us with His hand of grace.”
A heart for the lost
We asked Debbie what advice she would give to anyone who is contemplating becoming a missionary. She says, “First, you should already be active in your own church, have developed the discipline of regular Bible reading and prayer, and have a heart for the lost who are around you. You aren’t going to be a good missionary if you’re not evangelizing in your own culture. You should also seek a good evangelical sending agency. Many mission agencies also require some formal Bible college education.”
Debbie has a heart for Liberia and hopes to return there. However in the meantime, she was sent to Cameroon in August 2015 to serve at a hospital there.
References and notes
- For more information about Ebola, including how Ebola is a result of the Curse, see creation.com/ebola. Return to text.
- The major difference being that, unlike AIDS, acutely ill Ebola patients are hemorrhaging bodily fluids which makes it harder to avoid sharing bodily fluids; hence the need for protective gear when treating them. Return to text.
- The 11 September 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi Libya by Islamic terrorists. Return to text.