OMAHA — Dr. Rick Sacra raised his arms Thursday morning and proudly declared: “The CDC has declared me safe and free of virus, and thank God. I love you all.”
Sacra, a 51-year-old Massachusetts physician who became infected with the Ebola virus while working in Liberia, appeared alongside doctors and his wife, Debbie, at the Nebraska Medical Center on the occasion of his release from the hospital.
It was a sunny, cloudless day in the Plains, reminiscent of summer, far removed from the dreary, rain-filled morning when he arrived at the hospital three weeks ago. On that day, he was escorted by police and wheeled into the hospital because he could not walk under his own power.
On this day, he would hold a press conference, leave the hospital, and board a private jet. And by 6 p.m. sharp, after flying cross-country, he pulled into the driveway of his house in Holden, Mass., and walked steadily inside, concluding a medical and personal odyssey that had taken him from the heart of the world’s worst Ebola outbreak back to his home just north of Worcester.
The doctor, who was working with the SIM missionary group, was delivering babies at a medical clinic in Liberia when he became infected and had been at the Nebraska hospital since Sept. 5.
He was cleared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after blood samples taken 24 hours apart showed no evidence of Ebola lingering in his bloodstream.
The physician was cheerful and energetic as he described his path to recovery Thursday during an Omaha press conference punctuated by laughter and applause.
“I never felt like I was not going to make it,” he said, despite being beset with fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and aches over the course of the illness.
Sacra, a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, said he took two long showers before leaving the biocontainment unit where he had been quarantined. The 10-bed unit is the largest in the United States.
“Well, ladies and gentleman, Nebraska 1, Ebola 0,” said the medical center chancellor, Dr. Jeffrey Gold. “This is indeed an amazing accomplishment.”
When he learned he was being sent to Nebraska for treatment, Sacra acknowledged, he was surprised. “I did say, ‘Wow, Nebraska?’ ” he said to laughter. “Who made that decision?”
The press conference was attended by dozens, including the 35 medical staff members who cared for Sacra over three weeks.
“Seeing him up and moving and eating his nachos was fantastic,” said Morgan Shradar, lead operating room nurse in the biocontainment unit.
Nurses caring for Sacra had to wear three pairs of surgical gloves duct-taped to surgical gowns. And they donned surgical boots, a head covering, and air-purifying masks, along with face shields.
Karen Roesler, another nurse, said the doctor’s personality shone through the physical barriers. She said he told his caregivers stories about the people of Liberia and about his friends and three sons.
“He seems to, wherever he is, embrace the culture and environment, and he did that in Nebraska, too,” Roesler said, “even though he didn’t see much of it.”
Shradar said it was emotional watching Sacra walk by himself Thursday.
“It brought tears to your eyes,” she said. “He arrived sick, and left healthy.”
His wife was jovial Thursday, when the couple shared their first hug in about two months.
“It was great to get a hug,” Debbie Sacra said.
Sacra received a research drug called TKM-Ebola, which inhibits the virus’s ability to replicate, medical officials said. He was also treated with plasma from another Ebola survivor, Dr. Kent Brantly.
LuAnn Larson, clinical research manager at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, administered the drug.
She said researchers stayed up for hours and even days making arrangements upon finding out Sacra would be treated in Nebraska.
“We had a patient who could die,” she said, “so we went through all the right processes. We just went faster.”
Thursday afternoon, Larson was hustling down 42d Street in Omaha, with a binder of data 3 inches thick to send to the drug company. She said administering the drug, through an IV, was an experience that will stick with her forever.
Doctors do not yet know whether a single factor or a combination of approaches helped Sacra survive.
“Rick is our first graduating class,” said Dr. Phil Smith, who treated the Massachusetts physician.
Sacra called for prayers and resources for the countries hit hardest by Ebola in western Africa. Ebola is believed to have infected at least 5,800 people in western Africa, killing 2,800, and disease trackers fear that the outbreak could intensify.
The CDC said this week that the number of cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone alone could hit 1.4 million without effective containment.
“Unfortunately, the Ebola crisis continues to spin out of control,” he said.
Brantly and another American medical worker who contracted Ebola also recovered. Both were treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where a fourth patient is still being treated.
Despite his recovery, Sacra said he remains weak.
“I just have no reserve, no energy,” he said. “I’m very, very weak.”
Sacra said it is likely he will return one day to Liberia, where he has spent much of the last two decades.
“I’m certainly not ruling it out,” he said.
But on Thursday night, he was back home, in Holden.
Michael Fahey lives a street over.
“He’s a very brave man,” Fahey said. “Amazingly, he’ll probably go back over there.”
Fahey’s wife, Denise, said she plans to bake a cake or cookies for the Sacras to welcome the doctor back.
“What a story that man has,” Michael Fahey said.