Holden doctor who contracted Ebola in Liberia to receive $500,000 award

By Henry Schwan, MetroWest Daily News Staff |

HOLDEN – Dr. Rick Sacra is a long way from his home in Liberia, and there’s a lot to do.

Catching up with family is high on the list for the Wayland native, and so is a trip to New York City where he will receive the Gerson L’Chaim Award on Thursday, along with its $500,000 prize.

Sitting in the living room of his Holden residence – his base when he’s back in the states visiting family and friends, including his father and brother, who live in Wayland – Dr. Sacra said the $500,000 is a “little overwhelming, to be honest.”

The award honors Dr. Sacra for his decades-long work at Eternal Love Winning Africa Hospital in Paynesville, Liberia. He has treated countless patients as a family physician, and it is also where he contracted the deadly Ebola virus in 2014.

After spending three weeks in isolation at a Nebraska hospital, followed by several months of recuperation in Holden, Dr. Sacra beat the disease and eventually made it back to ELWA.

“This is a second chance to finish the work that we started,” he said of the $500,000 award that will build on his years at ELWA. The money, he said, will train Liberian doctors, establish an intensive care unit, and provide an initial investment in a solar energy system.

Dr. Sacra’s work started when he and his wife, Debbie, headed to ELWA after he graduated from University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1989.

But the vision for his work began many years earlier.

Dr. Sacra, 56, knew by the third grade he wanted to be doctor, and was fascinated by missionaries telling stories of humanitarian work in far-flung outposts when his family attended Wayland’s Trinitarian Congregational Church.

“I asked (the missionaries) if they needed doctors (in those parts of the world),” Dr. Sacra said. “It was a conviction that God put in my heart when I was quite young.

Dr. Sacra’s career as a Christian missionary doctor was planned, but contracting the Ebola virus in August 2014 of course was not. The epidemic claimed more than 11,000 lives in West Africa from 2014 to 2016. In hindsight, Dr. Sacra thinks he knows the patient who infected him.

“I didn’t know she had it. She didn’t have a fever,” Dr. Sacra said.

He lost dear friends to Ebola, including a physician assistant who Dr. Sacra said was in denial and refused to access a treatment center.

Dr. John Dada was another colleague who died. “Dr. Dada was a gem of a person,” he said.

A vaccine, which didn’t exist when Dr. Sacra contracted Ebola, has helped make Liberia Ebola-free. The World Health Organization gave the country that designation in May 2015, when 42 days had passed since the last confirmed laboratory case.

Changes in funeral practices were another factor in eliminating Ebola in Liberia, Dr. Sacra said. Ebola is spread through human contact, and according to the doctor, traditional Liberian funerals included dressing and hugging the corpse. Those practices changed, Dr. Sacra said, when people saw how treatment centers helped cure patients with food and medicine.

Ebola hasn’t left the African continent. The Democratic Republic of Congo has more than 700 reported cases, and neighboring South Sudan is vaccinating health workers as a precaution.

Right now, the Sacras are spending as much quality time as possible with their three sons, Maxwell, Jared and Caleb, before heading back to Liberia.

As for the future, Debbie said there is always the possibility that she and her husband could leave ELWA and start a “little, rural (health) clinic somewhere. But I don’t see that happening. We’re well entangled in the hospital environment.”

“I’m focused on continuing to invest in the lives of Liberian doctors,” Dr. Sacra said. “Training, mentoring and coaching. It’s what I love to do.”

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