Physician with Ebola paid high price in desire to help others
Tuesday, August 05, 2014 10:00 PM
As I write this, I don't know if Indianapolis native Dr. Kent Brantly is dead or alive. But I do know why he recently left the United States to care for patients in Liberia suffering from the Ebola virus, with which he has become infected himself.
Kent, now 33, was a student of mine in both college and medical school, and we talked frequently about his desire to become a physician and help others around the world.
Some might say that Kent acted unwisely. Why did he travel to West Africa in the midst of an outbreak of a highly infectious and frequently lethal disease? Why didn't he simply remain in the U.S., pursuing a comfortable medical practice, caring for well-heeled patients who represent no threat to his health, and enjoying the fruits of the good life with his wife and two young children?
Some might find Kent's answer to this question hard to understand. But I am confident in predicting the form it would take. Simply put, he would say that he had been called to care for the patients in Liberia.
Kent believes that his mission, as a physician and human being, is to serve the needs of others, and in doing so, to fulfill a higher purpose.
It would be convenient to say that Kent discovered this sense of calling at my university, perhaps even under my tutelage. But it would be more accurate to say that Kent arrived here with a sense of vocation. In some ways, Kent managed to sustain this sense of calling as much in spite of rather than because of what my colleagues and I taught him.
Much of his education in both college and medical school was organized to make him think like everyone else - to suppose that his success consisted in earning high grades and test scores, in gaining admission to medical school, in obtaining a secure and well-paying job, and in owning the kind of house and driving the kind of car that would spark the envy of others.
But Kent was never like this, and no amount of exposure to the conventional expectations surrounding success ever diverted his gaze.
He came to class not expecting to earn high grades, but to learn. He cared about money not as something he could enjoy but because it would finance his mission work. And he sought a career in medicine not as a validation of his own worth but as a call to serve others.
Kent is one of those rare people, wise beyond his years, who sees the micro-challenges of his own life - what field to study, what career to pursue, what kind of husband and father to be - in terms of the macro-challenges of the world - mouths to be fed, wounds to be dressed, diseases to be treated, and suffering human beings to be comforted.
Even Kent's personal statement for admission to medical school was anything but. Most students write about themselves, but Kent wrote about others.
Even when he wrote in the first person, it was always the first person plural. It was not "I, I, I" and "me, me, me" but "We, we, we" and "us, us, us." Kent truly believes that he has been put here for a purpose beyond himself.
It is natural to feel sorry for Kent. But I wonder if Kent wouldn't turn this around. Instead he might feel sorry for some of us, at least those of us shaking our heads in dismay at anyone who would travel half way across the world to do what he did.
A ship may be safest in harbor, but that is not what ships are for. Kent is one of those remarkable people who sees clearly his life's real purpose - serving others -- and has the courage to follow it. We all pray for his safe return home.
Dr. Richard Gunderman
Editor's note: Richard Gunderman is Chancellor's Professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. He is a 1983 graduate of Wabash College and it was his lecture on medical philanthropism at his 25th college reunion that sparked the development of the Montgomery County Free Clinic, stated Dr. John Roberts. This letter was previously published in the Indianapolis Star and Dr. Gunderman gave us permission to reprint it here.