The plane landed at Cartersville Airport Tuesday afternoon and taxied to a hanger on the airport’s east side. Earlier in the day it carried Nancy Writebol, 59, from Monrovia, Liberia, to Dobbins Air Reserve Base, where she was later transported to Emory University Hospital by ambulance. While still overseas, Writebol agreed to take an experimental drug that has never been tested on humans. Emory doctors are expected to closely monitor Writebol to determine the drug’s effects.
According to SIM USA President Bruce Johnson, Writebol, who was working with the group in Liberia, is settling in at Emory and her sons, Jeremy and Brian, will be able to visit her. Writebol’s husband, David, is still in Liberia, but plans to join his wife in Atlanta as soon as possible, according to a SIM press release.
“Nancy is still very, very weak, but shows continued, slow improvement,” Johnson said. “She is showing signs of progress and moving in the right direction.
“Nancy had yogurt before getting on the plane. When she was put aboard the aircraft about 1 a.m. Monrovia time [Tuesday], they took her there on a stretcher, but she could stand up and walk with assistance onto the plane. We still have a long way to go, but we have reason to hope.”
Prior to the press conference, Johnson spoke with David Writebol. Both men expressed their gratitude for Writebol’s return to the U.S.
“Nancy and I are profoundly grateful to the U.S. government and all the machinery that was marshalled on our behalf and what it took to get her home. I am very happy. And I am extremely grateful. I am not anxious, fretful or fearful — just relieved,” David Writebol said in the release. “A week ago we were thinking about making funeral arrangements for Nancy. Now we have a real reason to be hopeful.”
David Writebol added that the care his wife experienced in Liberia was “extraordinary.”
“It’s not like having a nurse come in every hour to fluff up your pillow. It’s more like going into a nuclear reactor,” he said. “The suits are clumsy, hot and uncomfortable. But it was like watching the love of Christ take place right before your eyes.”
Three days earlier, the second American aid worker diagnosed with the virus arrived at Emory. Dr. Kent Brantly, 33, walked from an ambulance.
The two patients — being treated in an isolation unit — were infected despite taking precautions as they treated Ebola patients in West Africa, where the virus has been spreading faster than governments can contain it, killing nearly 900 people so far.
The treatment, called ZMapp, was developed with U.S. military funding by a San Diego company, using antibodies harvested from lab animals that had been injected with parts of the Ebola virus. Tobacco plants in Kentucky are being used to make the treatment.
It’s impossible to know whether the drug saved these workers, CDC Director Tom Frieden emphasized.
“Every medicine has risks and benefits,” he said to reporters at a health symposium in Kentucky. “Until we do a study, we don’t know if it helps, if it hurts, or if it doesn’t make any difference.”
If the treatment works, it could create pressure to speed through testing and production to help contain the disease in Africa. Dozens of African heads of state were meeting with President Barack Obama on Tuesday at a summit in Washington. But it could take years before any treatment can be proven to be effective and safe, let alone mass produced.
There is no vaccine or specific treatment for Ebola, but several are under development, including ZMapp, made by Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. It works by boosting the immune system’s efforts to fight the virus. The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency announced July 22 that it is providing more funding to speed the drug’s development.
FDA permission must be obtained before any experimental treatments in the U.S., but other countries are beyond the FDA’s authority. The experimental drug was flown to Africa, and these aid workers were first treated in Liberia. The FDA has declined to comment on their treatment.
SIM said it’s working to bring David Writebol home. The group has spent nearly $1 million since the diagnoses of Nancy Writebol and Brantly, Johnson said. Samaritan’s Purse, for which Brantly was working, has spent more than $1 million, Johnson said.
Ebola is spread by close contact with blood and other bodily fluids, and Writebol’s duties included disinfecting doctors and nurses entering or leaving the Ebola treatment area. The virus is much less deadly when patients get top-flight care, experts say.
The CDC has been criticized for not objecting to the arrival of Ebola victims on U.S. soil, but Frieden has emphasized that there is no threat of an outbreak spreading in the United States.
Writebol and Brantly will be sealed off from anyone who isn’t wearing protective gear. Dr. Bruce Ribner, who will treat them, said their families can speak with them through a plate-glass window.
On Tuesday, Amber Brantly said in a statement that she has been able to see her husband every day.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.