With no cure and a nearly 90 percent mortality rate in past outbreaks, the Ebola virus should have scared away Dr. Kent Brantly and aid worker Nancy Writebol.
But Brantly, 33, and Writebol, 59, chose to go to the heart of the epidemic in West Africa to help others — a volunteer mission seen by many as selfless and heroic. Their work echoes that of missionaries throughout history who have tended to some of the world’s neediest.
“Their mission runs deep and strong,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who consults closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It is humbling.”
Schaffner told NBC News that many medical volunteers who put their own lives in danger to help others go overseas because of a “deep religious commitment and wish to express their faith.”
Brantly moved to Monrovia last year to work with the group Samaritan’s Purse. He told his Indianapolis church, according to the The Christian Post, “God has a call on my life. God did not give us a spirit of timidity.”
Writebol, who arrived in the United States this week on a stretcher, in worse shape than Brantly, worked directly with Ebola patients as part of the Christian group SIM USA.
Both Americans were flown back to the United States by their Christian aid organizations after contracting the deadly virus in Liberia. Today their condition continues to improve while being treated with experimental drugs at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital.
Historically, religious figures have played a large role in delivering healthcare in some of the most dire circumstances. Belgian Joseph De Veuster, known by his Roman Catholic name as Father Damien, lived in Hawaii among patients ostracized by leprosy. He died of the disease in 1889.
Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a Lutheran philosopher, physician and Nobel-prize winner from Germany, reinterpreted the message of Jesus in his humanitarian work in a medical missionary in Gabon, where he died in 1965.
Modern-day missionary Mother Teresa was an Albanian who spent most of her life caring for the sick and poor in India, for which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, two years after she died. The Catholic Church began the process leading to her sainthood in 2003, the shortest ever, waiving the normal five-year waiting period.
But many of today’s volunteers have secular reasons for serving in West Africa where the Ebola virus is rampant.
“They have a sense of service,” said Schaffner. “Kind of like grown-up Boy Scouts.”
Others are motivated by the intellectual challenge of treating “living diseases” like typhoid, advanced pneumonia and malaria, he said.
“Among the infectious disease fraternity, it’s like taking an old textbook off the shelf, not to see the diseases of yesteryear,” said Schaffner. “There are also surgeons, for example, who go abroad and see problems they won’t see here and can fix them directly.”
DeLois Greenwood, who runs global programs for WonderWork, a U.S. charity that funds free surgical care in South Asia and Africa for those who are blind, burned or crippled, said she works with “heroes everywhere.”
“There is a natural pull to do it,” Greenwood told NBC News. “I know people who have traversed the world on the front lines.”
“Nothing is more gratifying than to see a mother’s relief when their child has had surgery and a club foot is corrected or a burn is healed when they had no place to turn,” she said.
“When the level of need is just so overwhelming, you feel like what you are doing makes a huge impact,” she said. “You are changing lives every day. Saving lives every day.”
Some of WonderWork’s on-site partners have had to relocate from Sierra Leone because of the Ebola epidemic. Greenwood, a former nurse, said medical volunteers, particularly in infectious disease settings, are rarely foolhardy.
“Any time you are in an underserved area of poverty where there is infectious disease, there is a level of risk and you accept that,” she said. “You try to be smart. But you don’t think about it every day. You think of the task at hand.”
The World Health Organization has said the Ebola epidemic is “totally out of control” in West Africa and is calling out for more help. And medical experts say volunteers with a special commitment to service will continue to step forward.
“There are those who have a religious calling and are moved by faith hand in hand with evangelical hopes,” said Art Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and an NBC News contributor.
“You see people who want to help those who are desperately in need and the challenges are fixable,” said Caplan. “And there are those with a social justice calling.”
No matter the motivation, he said, “they really do care.” And he says, there is also the rush that goes with such service.
“The problem is, it’s hard to go home when you are the hero in the white coat and you get so much respect and appreciation.”