Dr. Richard A. Sacra, the Massachusetts physician infected with Ebola while working at a hospital in Liberia, has taken major steps toward recovery, a doctor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center said Thursday.
“His progress has been remarkable,” Dr. Angela Hewlett said at a news conference at the Omaha medical center, where Sacra has been treated since last week.
Hewlett said that, given the progress that Sacra has made, “I would think a relapse would be less likely.”
But she also sounded a cautionary note, saying the treatment was breaking new ground, not only because Sacra had received an experimental drug; he also had received blood transfusions from an American doctor who had contracted Ebola and recovered.
“He is doing a lot better clinically and on paper, but again, we’re really taking things day by day,” she said.
Sacra’s wife, Deborah, said the family was amazed at how quickly his condition improved after he was admitted to the biocontainment unit at the medical center last Friday. She attributed his recovery to both “faith and science.”
“He is humbled and overwhelmed by the words of kindness and support” he has received, she said. “We are also thankful for the research drug and excellent supportive medical care that was available.”
Medical center officials said Sacra had received two transfusions from Dr. Kent Brantly, one of two other Americans who contracted the disease recently and recovered.
Dr. Philip Smith said at the medical center news conference that the idea was to “jump-start” Sacra’s immunity, to “buy him some time” to develop his own defenses against the virus.
“It really meant a lot to us that [Brantly] was willing to give that donation so soon after his own recovery,” said Deborah Sacra.
The officials also said that Dr. Sacra had received an experimental drug every night since his arrival at the biocontainment center. Smith said doctors had been asked not to reveal the name of the drug because, for one thing, there is no data yet on whether it actually worked. “We don’t know that this drug had any impact at all,” he said.
The worst Ebola outbreak in history, rooted in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, has spread to Nigeria and Senegal, and has been blamed for more than 2,200 deaths across West Africa.
Sacra was not treating Ebola when he contracted the virus. He was working to deliver babies. Deborah Sacra said US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was investigating how he got the disease, but investigators so far believed it had happened in an “emergency situation.”
Sacra, 51, has spent much of his career working in Liberia. SIM, a Christian missionary group, sponsors his work. He owns a home in Holden and is a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.
Deborah Sacra said her husband contacted her on Aug. 30, saying that he had been running a fever since the day before and he was treating himself for malaria, hoping his illness was not Ebola. He was tested for Ebola that Monday; four days later he arrived in Nebraska for treatment.
She said her husband would use his Ebola experience as a “platform… to be able to speak out on behalf of the people who are suffering over there.”
“I know that he would hate all this attention, but if he can use it to make sure that resources are used well in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea to help lick this thing and build up the health care system so they’re not at risk of this kind of disaster again, . . . he will do everything he can from here on out,” she said.
She warned that the fight against Ebola would take more time and more resources and, if it isn’t addressed, it could spread. “We in America enjoy many benefits from globalization, and we’d like to think we can isolate ourselves…. But every day and every week that we don’t do what we can… we are risking the possibility that Ebola will not stay in West Africa,” she said.
Asked what she would tell her husband if he wanted to return to Liberia, she said she would probably say the same thing — “I know where your heart is” — and let him go.
“Besides now,” she said, “he’ll have immunities. I’m sure that when he gets his strength back, he’s going to be ready to go back.”