WORCESTER, Mass. — The Massachusetts doctor who beat Ebola plans to return to Liberia, where he contracted the deadly virus, in order to help overworked colleagues in the missionary hospital where he has worked for years.
Dr. Rick Sacra, 52, of Holden, said Monday he won't be working directly with Ebola patients but might be asked to help from time to time, since doctors say he's now immune. He departs Thursday.
"The medical staff is a little bit reduced. They've been working very hard and frankly they need a little bit of a breather," he said at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he is an assistant professor. "I just feel the need to return to hopefully give them a break so they don't burn out."
But Sacra said he has no interest in testing his immunity and promised to follow all the necessary Ebola safety protocols.
He expects to be mostly treating patients with malaria and chronic health issues like high blood pressure and diabetes at ELWA, a hospital in the Liberian capital of Monrovia that is run by Serving In Mission, a North Carolina-based Christian organization.
"I guess I'm less nervous about this trip because the thing that I was afraid of having last time, I've had it, and, thank God, I'm through it," Sacra said.
Sacra contracted Ebola in August while caring for pregnant women not suspected to have Ebola, including delivering babies and performing several cesarean sections. He was treated and released from an Omaha, Nebraska, hospital in September.
Sacra said he's nearly at full strength now, after some "bumps in the road" to recovery that included treatment for vision problems, physical therapy and an upper respiratory tract infection that briefly sent him back to the hospital in October.
"I think of those in Liberia that are having to deal with all these same challenges, with so much less help than I've had," he said.
Sacra returns to a country and a region that appears to be turning a corner in controlling the spread of Ebola, which has claimed over 8,000 lives, mostly in the West African nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, according to the World Health Organization.
During a recent three-week period, the organization reported 70 confirmed new cases of Ebola in Liberia, compared to some 900 in neighboring Sierra Leone and over 300 in Guinea.
Sacra also noted that each country now has enough beds to treat Ebola patients, and that four out of every 10 Ebola patients are now surviving the virus.
Sacra is among at least 10 people — a majority of them health care workers — that have been treated in the U.S. Two of those patients have died.
He is the first U.S. patient to return to West Africa. A British nurse, William Pooley, returned to Sierra Leone in October after being treated in London in September.
Sacra's wife, Debbie, who joined him Monday, said she and the couple's three sons understand and support Sacra's decision to return.
She noted that Liberian doctors and health care workers who have survived the disease are already working in Ebola units and caring for children orphaned by it.
"There is a mindset of paying it forward there," Debbie Sacra said. "I don't really have any worries. I'm just really happy for him and I'm really happy for Liberia. ... I know there are a lot of people looking forward to seeing him."