Samaritan’s Purse is a mission organisation which has been providing disaster relief all around the world since 1970. Lance Plyler, the medical director of disaster response, recently visited Australia, and Neil Johnson caught up with him to talk about how they help people in crises, and the kind of volunteers they need to do their important work. Dr Plyler also told the story of the very personal crisis he faced, when his close friend was infected with the Ebola virus in Liberia.
Samaritan’s Purse has responded to some of the world’s greatest disaster’s in recent years, including earthquakes in Haiti, Ecuador, and Nepal, and the typhoon that ravaged Tacloban in the Philippines. More recently, they’ve been helping refugees fleeing the battle of Mosul. Dr Plyler had been running a training program in Sydney, preparing Australians for medical disasters overseas. But he explained that Samaritan’s Purse does much more than medical work.
“Not only do we deliver medical teams quickly to the ground, but whatever the assessment of the needs are, we can provide food, security, shelters, clean water. SO there’s a multitude of different sectors which we can provide quickly to meet the needs on the ground, given the disaster.”
In 2014, when the Ebola epidemic struck Liberia, Samaritan’s Purse were ready. They had established an office there a decade earlier, and by then employed 350 Liberian staff. “It was our home,” Dr Plyler said. “SO we felt very very compelled to reach out to our Liberian friends, brothers and sisters, and help them during this crisis.”
Dr Plyler appointed his good friend, Dr Kent Brantly, as director of their Ebola treatment centre. The thirty-three-year-old Doctor had a wife and two young children, who luckily returned to the US to attend a wedding, just before disaster struck.
“I received a call from Kent one morning, and he said Lance, you’re not going to believe this, but I’ve got a fever. And we both knew the potential implications.”
Dr Brantley initially tested negative for Ebola, but three days later, as his condition worsened, they retested him. In order not to raise concern, they had given him a codename. On a throwaway cell phone, Dr Plyler received a short text message from the laboratory, which he knew would be a death sentence for his colleague. “I’ll never forget as long as I live. It said I’m very sad to inform you that Tamba Snell is positive.”
Dr Plyler was certain that his friend wouldn’t survive. And the crisis only got worse, when Nancy Writebol, another American, was also infected. Dr Plyler put all his prayer and all his energy into finding a way to save them.
“It was the most miraculous series of events that I’ve ever experienced in my life,” he said. “We had a whole medical team that was incredibly courageous, and continued to provide comprehensive care for the Liberians that were infected with Ebola. But then in addition, they had to provide for their own.”
“We had access to one of just four vials of this novel therapy that had never been administered to a human before, called ZMapp. And through just a number of miraculous steps were able to access that. Literally, Kent and Nancy were dying from this Ebola virus, and we were able to administer it.”
“And then thereafter we were able to access the only plane in the world that could transport a patient positive for a viral haemorrhagic fever like Ebola, that was Phoenix air. I think the whole world witnessed, as that plane landed, and brought him via ambulance to Emery Hospital.”
“And praise God, all the glory to God, Kent and Nancy survived an incredible ordeal.”
Two years later, the Ebola virus is no longer infecting the people of Liberia. “I’m happy to report at this point, it’s completely under control,” Dr Plyler said. “It certainly has left its fingerprint though. There’s so many people that have been traumatised. Within the whole region, nearly 11,000 people have died from this devastating virus.”
The Ebola virus further damaged the country’s medical infrastructure, which was already tenuous after years of civil war. And many of those who survived are suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress. “So Samaritan’s Purse is actively involved in a post-Ebola response, where they’re reaching out to people to provide therapy for them, and care for them, in the aftermath of this deadly disease.”
It’s clear from Dr Brantly’s story that the volunteers who work with Samaritan’s Purse in disaster zones make great sacrifices, and take great risks. Neil Johnson asked Dr Plyler what kind of person is ready to drop everything, and put their own lives in danger when they’re needed. “I think like many activities, it is a person that’s called,” he said.
“Particularly when I think about the army of people on our team, we’re looking at healthcare professionals that are Christians, but primarily are very humble, and very motivated to reach people around the world that are in desperate need.”
“Many times the experience is dangerous,” he admitted. “We do approach harm’s way, but we feel that we do so cautiously, and we do so with the empowerment of the holy spirit to lead us and direct us as we deliver healthcare. So we are looking for people that are readily available and motivated by Christ, to share their faith, through delivery of healthcare, and meeting people in times of need.”
Johnson asked Dr Plyler what kind of response the group receives when stepping into help people in non-Christian cultures. “I think you might be surprised,” he said. “Honestly at the end of the day, they want an organisation that can deliver.
Samaritan’s Purse works frequently with secular groups like Doctors without Borders, directly with governments, and with faith-based organisations like themselves. He says the most important factor is whether they are able to provide prompt care to people who need it. “And I believe Samaritan’s Purse, fortunately, has an excellent reputation to be able to do that. And so I think we work very well with organisations from all walks of life.”
In some ways, having faith can even be an advantage. Dr Plyler says it helps people feel capable of stepping into danger. “Honestly, I’m very prayerful and cautious, but I do feel empowered by God, to do the work that I do, and I believe my colleagues do as well.”
“And so we really do lean very very heavily on our faith to direct us, and provide courage, and just to give us wisdom, as we respond to these dangerous crises around the world.”
Samaritan’s Purse need medical professionals to join their Disaster Assistance Response Teams (Dart). The United Nations have requested urgent help in Iraq, to treat victims and refugees from the battle for Mosul. If you can help, click here to apply.
If you’re able to help Samaritan’s Purse financially, you can donate online here, or call 1300 884 468.