What does it look like when people set aside their quest for personal health, happiness and satisfaction in favor of a cross? I'm going to venture an answer to that question by way of an example of selfless service that captured my imagination a few years ago. I should add, however, that I don't know if any of the people I'm about to describe are confessing followers of Jesus. But I do know this: their brave and selfless actions provided a moving illustration of what living faith looks like.
The time is September 2014. The world has grown increasingly worried about an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus when a young man named Thomas Eric Duncan arrives in Dallas, Texas from an Ebola hotspot: the country of Liberia in West Africa.
Shortly after arriving in the United States, Mr. Duncan falls ill and is taken to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. Not long after that, he is diagnosed with the highly contagious and nearly always fatal hemorrhagic fever: Ebola has landed on American soil. Do you remember the fear and uncertainty of that time when Ebola moved from being a terrible blight in some exotic overseas locale to one that had arrived on our proverbial doorstep? Those dark months in the fall of 2014 are seared into my memory because it felt for a time like we were living out the plot of a Hollywood disaster movie.
So now, let's shift our attention back to the literal Ground Zero of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. Once Ebola had arrived, imagine how terrifying it would have been to go into work as an employee of that hospital. Every door handle, every railing, every elevator button, every breath of air could be concealing a deadly virus that would bring about a tortured, agonizing death in a matter of days. If I was on the payroll at Texas Health Presbyterian, I'd probably look for a reason–any reason–not to come into work. Why? I'll be honest: I'm a coward. I'm afraid of suffering and I definitely don't want to die. Long story short: I didn't sign up for this.
Here's the thing that still humbles and amazes me: despite the enormous risk to themselves, all the staff of the hospital–doctors, nurses, support staff, all of them–readily volunteered to provide care to Mr. Duncan. And what did that commitment look like? Just consider the job profile for the front line nurses. Day after day they dressed in double gloved hazmat suits. You need to understand that this was a stifling uniform that left them soaking in sweat within minutes. Uncomfortable though it may have been, it was essential protection against the deadly virus. Next, they would enter the quarantined area where Duncan was being housed, a nightmarish twilight zone stranded between death and the land of the living.
Once there, the nurses would set to work, hydrating Duncan, comforting him, and changing his clothes. As you can imagine, the scene was a living hell: Duncan emitted copious amounts of diarrhea, projectile vomiting, blood and all of it was toxic hazardous waste. The minute they entered the room those caregivers were placing their very lives at risk. And yet, the nurses would still work 16 to 18 hour days taking turns on two hour shifts in their full hazmat gear, and all to care for one desperately ill man.
A couple months after Duncan passed away, "60 Minutes" did a story which featured interviews with some of these extraordinary caregivers. One of these brave individuals, a man named John, shared his recollections of caring for Duncan. He recalled: "we held his hand and talked to him and comforted him because his family couldn't be there." As I watched John recalling his time serving Duncan, I found myself amazed by his compassion in the midst of the worst horrors. He continued, "He was glad someone wasn't afraid to take care of him. And we weren't."
Two nurses–Nina Pham and Amber Vinson–contracted Ebola as a result of treating Mr. Duncan. Both eventually recovered.
Well I'll tell you this: I would have been afraid. In our culture soldiers, police officers, and firefighters receive well-deserved credit for their courage in meeting the call of duty. By contrast, one doesn't typically use the words "brave" and "nurse" in the same sentence. But the nurses of Texas Health Presbyterian are some of the bravest people I've ever seen.
Despite the heroic efforts of his caregivers, Duncan continued to decline until he was hooked up to a respirator, heavily sedated, with tears streaking down his cheeks. Against this heartbreaking backdrop, John describes his final moments with Duncan:
"And I grabbed a tissue and I wiped his eyes and I said, 'You're going to be okay. You just get the rest that you need. You let us do the rest for you.' And it wasn't 15 minutes later I couldn't find a pulse. And I lost him. And it was the worst day of my life. This man that we cared for, that fought just as hard with us, lost his fight. And his family couldn't be there. And we were the last three people to see him alive. And I was the last one to leave the room. And I held him in my arms. He was alone."
As John shares these recollections, tears begin to roll down his face and his voice shakes. The emotions are clearly still raw. And when he says that was the worst day of his life, I believe him.
To be sure, had I been there, I might also have said it was the worst day of my life, but for very different reasons. I would've considered it my worst day because I'd have to risk my life while suffering in a stifling hazmat suit cramped in a room with a dying man and vats stuffed with towels and cloths infected with toxic diarrhea and vomit. By contrast, it was the worst day of John's life because he lost a patient he had cared for and loved, a man who tragically suffered greatly and died alone. There's a big difference between John and me, that's for sure. I don't know if John's a Christian, but I know which one of us looks more like Jesus.
Dr. Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has taught since 2003. He blogs at randalrauser.com and lectures widely on issues of theology, Christian worldview, and apologetics. This article is drawn from Randal's most recent book, What's So Confusing About Grace?