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Hero Missionary Doctor Who Survived Ebola Trains New Generation of African Physicians

03-06-2019
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Dr. Rick Sacra and medical staff at ELWA Hospital. Image courtesy of Debbie Sacra

PAYNESVILLE, Liberia- Rick Sacra says he knew from a young age that he wanted to make a difference in this world.

"The conviction that I had in my heart ever since I was a little boy was that I wanted to be someone who would portray the love of Christ," Sacra told CBN News.

(Courtesy: Debbie Sacra)

The Bible story of the Good Samaritan had a profound influence on Sacra's life.

"That story really impacted me when I was a kid," Sacra remembered. "I wanted to be somebody like that who would help others who needed help."

Falling in Love with the People of Liberia

That's where the idea of being a medical missionary was birthed.

"Medical missions just grew on me over the years and I really wanted to do it."

Sacra made his first trip to the West African nation of Liberia in 1987 to discover if this idea of serving as a missionary doctor was even feasible.

(Courtesy: Debbie Sacra)

"I discovered Liberia or Liberia discovered me when I was in medical school," Sacra recalled. "I went for a short term and really fell in love with the people."

In 1995, Sacra and his wife, Debbie, decided to move there permanently. What drew the couple here from Massachusetts?

"Well, I think it's the calling and conviction of the Lord in my life," said Sacra. "He has just put love for Liberia in my heart and thankfully, He has given that same love and commitment to my wife."

(Rick and Debbie Sacra's first trip to Liberia in 1987. Courtesy: Debbie Sacra)

Providing Compassionate Care in the Name of Christ

Today, Sacra is a SIM missionary doctor at ELWA Hospital, outside Liberia's capital Monrovia.

ELWA stands for Eternal Love Winning Africa.

"ELWA is all about providing care, compassionate care, in the name of Christ," said Sacra.

Founded by American missionaries in 1965, the hospital's mission is sharing the love of Jesus by caring for the sick.

"ELWA has always been a place where people know that they are going to get the best care possible, at an affordable price, and when they come here, they are going to hear about the love of God for them," Sacra said during an interview with CBN News at ELWA Hospital in Monrovia.

(Grounds of ELWA Hospital, Monrovia, Liberia)

'Christ's Love Compels Us'

Rick Sacra loves this country so much that he speaks English with a Liberian accent. It's not always easy to understand him, even for this reporter who grew up in Africa.

ELWA has now been the Sacras home away from home now for 24 years.

(Courtesy: Debbie Sacra)

"In Corinthians, it says that Christ's love compels us and I think that just characterizes the way we feel, that Christ's love compels us to go where we are needed," said Debbie, Sacra's wife.

(Atlantic Ocean, Liberia)

Since arriving here on the shores of Liberia back in 1995, Dr. Sacra has had one driving passion: to train the next generation of Liberian doctors. His dream came true about a year and a half ago when he launched the first family medicine program.

(Dr. Rick Sacra making rounds at ELWA Hospital)

Using Medicine for Ministry

It's the only one of its kind here and gives the 56-year-old doctor an opportunity to put his training to use as a family physician.

"It has been my desire for many years here in Liberia to be able to pour my life, my skills, and my experiences into local doctors who'll be able to pick up where I am going to leave off," Sacra said.

For Sacra it's also about using medicine for ministry.

"It's all about making an impact for the Kingdom of God through medicine because it is something that we missionaries have been doing for generations and I really want to pass on that desire to see medicine used of God to bring people to Christ."

Mission of Care

CBN News joined a team from ELWA Hospital on a medical outreach to the Liberian forest.

"So, getting to take you on this medical outreach trip into a rural area and to bring a pastor with us who can share Christ in the vernacular in concert with what we are doing medically, it is just exciting," Sacra said as he prepared to take CBN News into the forest.

Our two-hour journey through the bush brought us to a remote village outside the capital city.

After a time of worship, prayer and a short sermon by the village pastor, Sacra and team spend the next nine hours tending to more than 300 villagers.

"Folks here don't have access to medical facilities, they have to walk several hours to get to a medical center," Moses Paye, who heads up the Evangelical Church of Liberia told CBN News.

Jartu Holdero and her baby had to walk three hours to today's outreach. She, like so many that CBN News spoke with, was grateful for the team's visit.

"I'm so thankful to God that I could come to have my daughter seen by the doctors. It was a difficult journey, but worth it," Holdero said.

(Courtesy: Debbie Sacra)

The Sacras also pay a price: They have lived through two civil wars and had to evacuate twice from the country because of fierce fighting in the capital.

"There were times when there were two doctors for our whole hospital," Sacra recalled.

(Courtesy: Debbie Sacra)

"You were either on or you were off and I was one of the two doctors. It was so stressful because during the war years you were just thinking about taking care of the next patient, trying to stay alive and stay open as a hospital."

Dr. Sacra Contracts Deadly Ebola Virus

And then there was the 2014 deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Rick and Debbie were in the United States when the virus was spreading and killing thousands across the region.

(Courtesy: Debbie Sacra)

"I had heard that all the hospitals in Monrovia had closed and my concern, even though I was thousands of miles away in Massachusetts, was for women in labor who had no place to go to deliver," Sacra recalled. "I knew I could help, I knew I could make difference, so I couldn't stay away."

He flew back to Liberia during the height of the Ebola epidemic, but a month later got infected while caring for a pregnant woman at ELWA Hospital.

"When I got the fever on August 29, 2014, I suspected right away that it was Ebola," Sacra recalled. "I said, 'Well, God, if this is it, this is it and at least I'm doing something that you wanted me to do.'"

Sacra was airlifted from Liberia to a treatment center in Omaha, Nebraska.

Thankfully he survived, but now was itching to return.

"When I was in the hospital in Nebraska, once I started feeling a little better, I was immediately thinking when can I get back to Liberia," Sacra recalled. "I didn't take me three months to think about that, it took me about 10 days to think about that."
To understand Sacra's love for Liberia and its people you have to understand the profound belief he carries in his heart.

"God led me to become a medical missionary many years ago," he once wrote for Time magazine. "The passion that motivated me then is still the one that motivates me now: 'Love your neighbor as you love yourself.'"

"To see people's lives enriched through better health and the experience of God's love is still what drives me," Sacra added.

The Return to Liberia

Months after surviving Ebola, Sacra was back in Liberia continuing his calling of loving the stranger.

"As I always joked with people, 'Hey, I'm immune now, I can't get Ebola again!' So, I might as well go and help."

In late January, Dr. Sacra received the prestigious L'Chaim Prize for his work in Liberia.

The L'Chaim Prize ("To Life") for Outstanding Christian Medical Missionary Service was started by Jewish philanthropists Mark and Erica Gerson in 2016 to honor the heroic work of Christian missionary doctors serving in Africa.

(Courtesy: Debbie Sacra)

The prize is awarded by African Mission Healthcare co-founded by Mark Gerson and Dr. Jon Fielder, an American missionary serving in Kenya.

Fielder says the annual award is "the largest of its kind in the world that supports clinical care in Africa" and comes with a $500,000 gift.

(Dr. Jon Fielder and philanthropist Mark Gerson, co-founders of African Mission Healthcare. Courtesy: Dr. Fielder)

"When I met the Gersons about a year ago, it was just so clear their heart, their conviction, was to make a difference in Africa by pouring out their generosity on these mission hospitals that have needs," Sacra told CBN News. "They saw it as a great way to have an impact on people who were suffering."

(Philanthropists Mark and Rabbi Erica Gerson. Courtesy Mark Gerson)

Sacra says the L'Chaim Prize money will target three specific needs at ELWA Hospital:

.Train Liberian Family Medicine residents
.Open a new intensive care unit with trained staff
.Develop a small solar power installation to help cut down the hospital's power bill

"This kind of support opens the door to accomplish things we've been dreaming about for years, which will benefit our patients and our community by improving the healthcare of thousands of Liberians," Sacra said in a press statement shortly after accepting the award in New York recently.

(Dr. Jason Fader, a missionary serving at Kibuye Hope Hospital in Burundi)

The first L'Chaim Prize award in 2016 went to Dr. Jason Fader, an American medical missionary serving in a remote village in Burundi.

(Dr. Russ White, a missionary serving at Tenwek Hospital in Kenya)

The 2017 prize went to Dr. Russ White, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Tenwek Hospital in Kenya.

ELWA Hospital is also one of the recipients of a $2-million matching grant given by African Mission Healthcare (AMF) and Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) that will help improve the hospital's infrastructure, train additional medical experts and expand compassionate care to the Liberian people.

"We are just blessed, in the deepest sense, to have CBN as our partner on this project," Mark Gerson, co-founder of AMH, told CBN News.

"CBN, from the executives to the audience, are deeply devoted to the same things that AMH is, which is serving the Christian missionaries working in Africa and training the next generation of medical providers who can provide care to the next generation."

Gerson says the AMH - CBN collaboration to help eight mission teaching hospitals on the continent will help ensure that a new generation of African medical professionals can carry on the work of serving the poor and vulnerable.

"One of the biggest problems in Africa is the lack of physicians and other medical providers," Gerson noted. "Many African countries have one doctor for every 30,000 to sometimes 50,000 people, which means that a patient with any problem or a victim of any trauma, is unlikely to get treated by anybody, possibly at any point."

It's why the role of missionaries like Dr. Sacra is vital to developing and sustaining future leaders in the healthcare profession.

According to medical experts, Christian missionary hospitals provide one-third of medical care in Africa. Gerson says these institutions are vital lifelines for the continent.

"The Christian missionaries are there to serve the African poor and one of the most important things they do is to train the next generation of African medical providers," Gerson elaborated. "So, each missionary involved in these 8 teaching hospitals, is involved in training tens or dozens of Africans who are serving the poor."

(Courtesy: Willis Obunga)

"The capacity that each missionary provides now will be radically expanded well into the future," Gerson added.

Mark Gerson and his wife Rabbi Erica Gerson are giving an additional $5 million over the next 10 years to fund Christian mission teaching hospitals across Africa.

"The Torah tells us, more than it tells us anything else, it tells us 36 times in various ways, to love the stranger," Gerson told CBN News recently.

(Courtesy: Debbie Sacra)

"When my wife, who is a rabbi, and I think about how best we can discharge that Jewish obligation to love the stranger, we are drawn to the most effective and efficient way to do so which is to support the Christian medical missionaries who are providing care to the poor in Africa."

A sentiment echoed by Gerson's wife, Rabbi Erica, who is equally moved by the love and commitment of missionary doctors serving in Africa.

"These people are living their faith; They are not there to say, 'How many Christians can I make today?' They are there to say, 'How can I be the Christian that I was meant to be? What can I do to honor my faith in Jesus?' That speaks to me," Mrs. Gerson told CBN News from her home in New York City.

"It's really the same question that I ask myself: 'What can I do, given who I am and where I am in the world, what can I do to honor God?'"

Sacra says the resources committed to by the Gerson-AMH-CBN collaboration will go a long way to saving lives, both physically and spiritually.

(Courtesy: Debbie Sacra)

"In Liberia, over the next few years, there's going to be a huge impact, people are going to recognize this as doctors are going to be trained and that's going to impact the country for a generation," Sacra said.

Learn more on how you can support the work of medical missionary doctors in Africa here.

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