FP Honored for Selfless Service in Ebola-ravaged Liberia

Richard Sacra Gives Back to the Hospital, Community He Continues to Serve

April 16, 2019 03:12 pm Chris Crawford

As of April 14, 1,264 confirmed/probable cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been reported to the World Health Organization,(www.who.int) as well as 814 confirmed/probable related deaths.

This ongoing outbreak serves as a reminder that Ebola continues to threaten humanity, no matter how distant it may seem.

Story Highlights
  • Family physician and Ebola survivor Richard Sacra, M.D., was recently recognized for his efforts battling the disease at ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa) Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
  • The 2018 African Mission Healthcare (AMH) Gerson L'Chaim Prize for Outstanding Christian Medical Missionary Service, which supports clinical care in Africa, came with a $500,000 gift that Sacra will use to further develop ELWA Hospital, where he currently is acting medical director and chair of the family medicine residency training program.
  • Additionally, Sacra and ELWA Hospital were co-beneficiaries of another recent grant of $250,000, which came from a matching challenge collaboration between AMH and the Christian Broadcasting Network.

For family physician and missionary Richard Sacra, M.D., Ebola has never been just a faraway, international public health crisis. He survived EVD after contracting the disease while treating patients at ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa) Hospital -- established in 1965 by SIM (formerly Sudan Interior Mission) -- in Monrovia, Liberia, during the country's deadly Ebola outbreak in 2014. The epidemic also reached Guinea and Sierra Leone and accounted for more than 11,000 deaths.

During the 2014 outbreak, ELWA Hospital was also the site where Sacra's fellow family physician Kent Brantly, M.D., acquired EVD infection, along with American health worker Nancy Writebol. All three were flown to the United States to complete experimental treatments that saved their lives.

Sacra was recently honored for his efforts to battle the disease by being named the recipient of the 2018 African Mission Heathcare (AMH) Gerson L'Chaim Prize for Outstanding Christian Medical Missionary Service.(www.prnewswire.com)

This honor, which supports clinical care in Africa, came with a $500,000 gift that Sacra plans to use to further develop ELWA Hospital, where he currently is acting medical director and chair of the family medicine residency training program.

Additionally, Sacra and ELWA Hospital were co-beneficiaries of another recent grant of $250,000, which came from a matching challenge collaboration between AMH and the Christian Broadcasting Network, says a story on the SIMUSA.org website.(www.simusa.org)  

Plans for ELWA Hospital

According to the international mission organization's account, ELWA Hospital will use the collective funds to train additional physicians in family medicine and surgery.

The plans also call for building a new ICU and training nurses and other medical professionals to care for critically ill patients in the ICU, emergency department and throughout the facility.

Finally, the hospital will install a 40-kilowatt solar power unit to reduce its high utility costs.

Dr. Learwellie Craig II, a first-year family medicine resident at ELWA Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, left, looks on as Richard Sacra, M.D., accesses patient information. The hospital was established by SIM (Sudan Interior Mission) in 1965.

ELWA Hospital will start building new housing for two of its family medicine residency faculty members in the coming weeks, Sacra told AAFP News. A team from Pennsylvania also plans to visit soon to assess the solar power project needs and options, he added.

"ELWA is the only place I've served long term," Sacra said. "I've lived in Liberia about 20 years out of the last 32."

The hospital's staff currently includes three family physicians other than Sacra: one from the United States who originally came to Liberia with the Peace Corps but decided to stay and volunteer at the hospital after her service ended, one from Uganda who has spent the past 11 years in Liberia, and one from the United Kingdom who joined ELWA after spending the past five years in Sierra Leone.

As for the patients these improvements will benefit, Sacra said special attention will be focused on needs in the community, such as providing

  • holistic care and social support for teen mothers and their infants;
  • care for those younger than age 5, especially timely management of malaria;
  • HIV care and treatment; and
  • diabetes care, including through a monthly diabetes support group and a subsidized diabetes clinic.

Serving as Missionary, Family Physician

Sacra said for him, offering people hope comes in many different forms.

"Some patients just need someone to really listen to them carefully and offer them a more accurate diagnosis," he said. "Some patients need someone to pray with them and offer them the news that God loves them and cares about their problem. Some need counsel and advice on dealing with a challenging personal or social issue. And my Christian faith is a big part of offering all of those types of care."

Sacra said it's a blessing to serve at ELWA Hospital with staff members that include a terrific chaplain, social worker and patient advocate, all supporting this type of holistic care.

Richard Sacra, M.D., takes a moment to pray with a young girl during her visit to ELWA Hospital.

When asked how being a family physician has shaped his work, Sacra said he feels it has equipped him to tackle the many challenges he sees in a place like Liberia.

"At one time during the Liberian civil war, I was one of less than 50 doctors doing clinical work in the country," he said. "Being a family doc has enabled me to perform full-spectrum maternity care, including cesarean sections and ultrasound; helped me to found an HIV care and treatment program; and helped me to pioneer antiretroviral treatment here."

Sacra said his family medicine training also has taught him to perform some general surgeries when needed (i.e., hernias, appendectomies).

And he's now running Liberia's first family medicine residency program at ELWA Hospital -- currently in its second year -- in collaboration with the Liberia College of Physicians and Surgeons.

"Being a family doc has been so freeing and flexible," Sacra said.

For family physicians who, like Sacra, are interested in mission work, he said they need to be ready for many things to be quite different.

Many patients have no insurance and a very low income, so everyone who undertakes this work must think about keeping care affordable, he said.

"We have so few doctors and so few specialists, and such limited ability to provide intensive care, that a lot of patients who might have a chance at getting well in the United States might not survive here," Sacra said. "And that is really heavy for a doctor to process -- our self-worth comes from our ability to heal."

Finally, Sacra said it's a big sacrifice to do missions work because you have to leave behind many of the familiar things and some of the financial rewards to make life in a place like Liberia a reality. "But it is all worth it, having the privilege of helping people find health and wholeness," he said.

"I'm just very grateful to God for my wife and three sons, for them hanging in there with me through so many challenges and the entire SIM/ELWA team here," Sacra said. "What a privilege it has been to be able to train doctors and have a lasting impact!"

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