Yesterday at a press conference it was announced that the two American Ebola patients were being released from Emory University Hospital after nearly three weeks of undergoing intensive treatment. Upon his release, a joyful and relieved Dr. Kent Brantly called his recovery “miraculous” and thanked God for sparing his life. Dr. Brantly’s faith is personal to him and I respect the strength of his beliefs. He expressed his thoughts on the nature of his treatment and recovery. Here are mine.
It was not a miracle. If one is to believe what we are told about all-powerful and triumphant gods, a miracle is an easy thing for a deity. And what happened to these two patients, and what is so lacking for those suffering in Africa, was anything but easy. It was too big, too long in the making, and too much a work in progress for it to be so blithely dismissed as a “miracle”. It was outstanding care by a highly trained staff of medical professionals. It was the state-of-the-art healthcare facilities at a top-flight university. It was public and private funding for medical research. It was biologists and epidemiologists and internists and nurses and lab technicians and orderlies. It was government-sponsored research into disease transmission, control and treatment. It was decades of advances in patient care. It was nursing schools and medical schools, some private, some public, all recipients of tax dollars through a variety of grants and direct funding under state budgets. It was a combined several thousand years of collective study, research and experience embodied in the healthcare and administrative personnel and support staff. It was rigorous high school biology and chemistry programs. It was teaching evolution without which any understanding of or advances in the biological sciences is impossible. It was prioritizing education at all levels in the STEM fields, but it was also valuing education and training in the humanities and social sciences as it is those areas of study that produce the policy professionals who can more deeply understand, predict, document and describe human responses and motivations during times of extreme challenge and duress. It was thousands of hours in laboratories observing, experimenting, failing and trying again to comprehend a disease and formulate treatments. It was family and social groups that fostered a sense of responsibility to the human community. It was individual moments of insight and teamwork spread over decades. It was federal agencies and private research foundations and universities and biotech corporations. It was hard work and fierce dedication to a common goal of helping these dangerously ill people to become well again while preventing the spread of a killer.
Perhaps given the complexity of the web of factors that coalesced to result in the two missionaries’ recovery from Ebola, one could be forgiven for ascribing it mere miracle status. But this mind-set lets us off the hook. It says we don’t have to work so hard or spend so much time and money, pay so much attention and maintain such a commitment to the education, exploration and discovery that underlie medical successes, technological achievements and social progress. Taken to an extreme, which is not out of the question in this time of corporations as religious entities, government-sponsored prayer, creationism in science classes, and religious exemptions from public health mandates, along with an anti-government movement that aggressively slashes funding for scientific research, education and social programming, we could anticipate the breakdown of this vast supportive web of knowledge, information, education, development and treatment. And celebratory press conferences like the one at Emory University Hospital would be a thing of the past. Because there would be no “miracles.”