On the outskirts of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, on grassy land among palm trees and tropical hardwoods, stands a cluster of one-story bungalows painted cheerful yellow with blue trim. This is the campus of Eternal Love Winning Africa, a nondenominational Christian mission, comprising a school, a radio station and a hospital.
It was here that Dr. Jerry Brown, the hospital’s medical director, first heard in March that the fearsome Ebola virus had gained a toehold in his country. Patients with the rare and deadly disease were turning up at a clinic in Lofa County—part of the West African borderlands where Liberia meets Guinea and Sierra Leone. “It was then that we really started panicking,” says Brown.
Ebola was different. On this subject, Brown had more questions than answers. He knew the virus was contagious and highly lethal—fatal in up to 90% of cases. But why was it in Liberia? Previous Ebola outbreaks had been primarily in remote Central Africa. Could the disease be contained in the rural north? The membrane between countryside and city in Liberia was highly porous; people flowed into Monrovia in pursuit of jobs or trade and flowed back to their villages, families and friends. “Sooner or later,” Brown remembers thinking, “it might reach us.” And what then? A poor nation still shaky after years of civil war, Liberia—population 4 million-plus—had just a handful of ambulances in operation. How could Liberia possibly deal with Ebola?
Because he couldn’t answer these imponderables, Brown focused on what he could do. At a staff meeting, he assigned Dr. Debbie Eisenhut, an American with Serving in Mission (SIM), to research the disease. By combing the Internet, Eisenhut found what little there was to know about Ebola virus—symptoms, modes of transmission, treatment options. In its early stages, Ebola looked like any number of human infections common in that part of the world, including malaria: fever, achiness, a general sense of malaise. By the time it produced more shocking symptoms—uncontrollable vomiting, torrential diarrhea, organ failure and sometimes bleeding—the patient’s chance of survival was small.
The best news Eisenhut found was that Ebola virus does not pass through the air; transmission requires direct contact with the body fluids of symptomatic patients. As for treatments, her findings were meager: fluids to stave off dehydration and Tylenol for pain. And to prevent its spread, chlorine bleach solution to disinfect skin, clothes, bedding and floors. There was no known cure.
Eisenhut’s findings made it clear that Ebola patients must be separated from the rest of the hospital population and treated by staff wearing protective gear. And this posed further questions for Brown. The Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA) hospital didn’t have an isolation ward, nor was there time or money enough to build one. No hospital in Liberia had one. Looking around the compound for a solution, Brown’s eye settled on the modest chapel, bare but for a few battered wooden pews and a lectern that served as a pulpit.
“Well, of course, turning the chapel into an Ebola unit was not welcomed by the staff of the institution. The bulk of them said, ‘Why should we turn the house of God into a place where we put people with such a deadly disease?’ And some said, ‘Where will you provide for us to worship in the morning?’” Brown recalls. (His story, like all the accounts quoted here, was shared in an interview with TIME.) Read more…