Dr. Rick Sacra identified as third American missionary infected with Ebola

Aid group "exploring all opportunities," including bringing patient to U.S.

Dr. Rick Sacra treating patients in an undated photo taken in Liberia. (SIM)
Dr. Rick Sacra treating patients in an undated photo taken in Liberia. (SIM)

The third American health worker infected with Ebola in Africa has been identified as Dr. Rick Sacra, a missionary group announced on Wednesday.

The diagnosis came just two days after Sacra wrote about the unprecedented Ebola epidemic on his personal blog.

His dispatch from West Africa last weekend started with a humble salutation: "Dear Praying Friends."

The 51-year-old Massachusetts resident told of arriving in Monrovia, Liberia, less than a month ago to work at a mission hospital. The Ebola outbreak has thrust the capital city’s health care system into chaos, and medical emergencies are mounting, Sacra wrote.

A man reads a warning about Ebola on a van door in Liberia. (AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh)
A man reads a warning about Ebola on a van door in Liberia. (AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh)

"Please continue to pray!" he requested. The Christian specifically asked for strength, safety, and protection for patients and medical staff.

Shortly after publishing the blog entry, Sacra began feeling Ebola symptoms and immediately quarantined himself, according to Bruce Johnson, president of SIM USA, a charity based in Charlotte, North Carolina, that sponsor’s the doctor’s work in Liberia.

"While this news was disheartening for the sake of Rick, his wife and family, it does not dampen our resolve and commitment in SIM to serve the people of Liberia and attack this Ebola epidemic," Johnson said Wednesday.

Sacra is the third U.S. medical missionary in the past six weeks to contract the deadly disease while working at the charity’s ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa) hospital near Monrovia.

Physician Kent Brantly and a missionary volunteer, Nancy Writebol, were treated with an experimental drug and evacuated to Atlanta, where they both recovered and were recently released. Earlier in July, a Liberian American, Patrick Sawyer, fell ill upon his arrival in Nigeria and died of the disease.

Johnson said Sacra is one of two American doctors working with SIM who volunteered to go to Liberia after Brantly and Writebol became ill in July. The second unidentified doctor is en route now.

"Rick called and said 'I’m ready to go,'" Johnson said. "They knew the risks going in. They also knew that the protocols were in place. Rick was following those.

Will Elphick, SIM's director for Liberia, likened Sacra's desire to serve to that of a firefighter or police officer.

"If you see someone in distress, do you not go and help that person?" Elphick said.

Unlike Brantly and Writebol, Sacra had not been working at the facility’s Ebola isolation unit, which is separate from the main hospital. Instead, the married father of three was seeing obstetrics patients.

Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol (Courtesy of Samaritan's Purse/SIM)
Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol (Courtesy of Samaritan's Purse/SIM)

All other hospitals in Monrovia have recently been closed for decontamination after Ebola victims came to the facilities, Sacra wrote. The ELWA mission hospital reopened for obstetrics only on August 6 after being decontaminated.

"When the patients started arriving, they had often been to several other hospitals and traveled for hours seeking care," wrote Sacra, who made it to Monrovia on August 4. "More than 35 cesarean sections were performed to save women and their babies in the first 20 days — sometimes two or three a day."

In late August, Sacra said he lobbied for the hospital to accept a nonobstetrics patient, a 13-year-old girl named Lisa who was suffering severe abdominal pain. Sacra and a Liberian surgeon operated deep into the night to repair holes in her intestine caused by infection.

"I am happy to report that Lisa is improving and slowly recovering," Sacra wrote last Saturday. "But she is just one of so many people in Liberia who are at risk because of the Ebola tsunami that swept through an already fragile healthcare system."

Sacra's colleagues and family in the U.S. have been able to communicate with him via email and telephone since his diagnosis. Elphick said that while the doctor remains positive, "you can be in good spirits but not responding to how you may be feeling."

The recent outbreak in West Africa has been described as the worst Ebola outbreak ever. More than 1,550 people have died since it was first reported in the forests of southeastern Guinea in March.

Air ambulance previously used to bring Ebola patients to the U.S. (AP Photo/Todd Kirkland)
Air ambulance previously used to bring Ebola patients to the U.S. (AP Photo/Todd Kirkland)

There is no approved treatment or vaccine for Ebola, but health officials say it can be contained if the sick are immediately quarantined and vigilant sanitation practices are followed. The virus has been known to kill 50 to 90 percent of those infected.

The air ambulance that was used to bring Brantly and Writebol to Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital for treatment left Georgia early Wednesday on the same route used on the previous evacuations.

"We aren’t commenting right now; you’ll have to call the State Department," Phoenix Air Group Inc. Vice President Dent Thompson told Yahoo News.

Johnson would say only that SIM is "exploring all opportunities." Asked about the experimental drug given to Writebol and Brantly, Johnson said, "There is no more ZMapp in the world, according to news reports that we’ve seen." 

How Sacra contracted the virus is not clear, because it requires direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is sick.

"There is a strong possibility that the symptoms were masked and not presenting themselves with a particular patient who was admitted and cared for," Johnson said. "Possibly this is how Dr. Sacra contracted it, but again there’s no confirmation on that."

The Sacra family has served the organization’s ELWA hospital on and off for nearly two decades in the war-torn country.

"Many of those who are caring for Rick are those he has taught and mentored," Johnson said. "They love and admire Dr. Sacra, so he is receiving their utmost attention and care."

Most recently, Sacra has been splitting time between Massachusetts and the mission’s 136-acre Monrovia campus to set up a new hospital and family practice residency training program for Liberian doctors.

Sacra was excited when Brantly arrived last October to begin a two-year postresidency assignment, and the two quickly became friends.

"He’ll also be a part of developing this vision," Sacra wrote last fall. "We are anxious to see what God is going to do!"

(This story was updated at 1:15 p.m. ET.)

Follow Jason Sickles on Twitter (@jasonsickles).