A Massachusetts physician who has devoted his career to medical missionary work in Liberia — and who returned to that country after other medical workers fell ill with Ebola — is the third American stricken with the deadly virus, officials said Wednesday.
Dr. Richard A. Sacra, 51, a family doctor who trained and worked in Worcester but spent most of the past 20 years in Liberia, was not treating Ebola patients but working in an obstetrics ward at a hospital in Monrovia when he became ill.
Sacra developed a fever Friday and isolated himself; tests confirmed Ebola on Monday, according to a statement from his family.
He was being cared for at ELWA (which stands for Eternal Love Winning Africa) Hospital, which is run by the Christian missionary group SIM.
At a news conference Wednesday morning, SIM president Bruce Johnson said he did not know whether Sacra would return to the United States. The organization canceled a second press conference scheduled for the afternoon, and no information on Sacra’s condition was available.
The two other Americans who contracted Ebola, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, recovered after treatment at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
“I’m scared, I’m sad,” said Dr. Virginia Van Duyne, a family medicine professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where Sacra earned his medical degree and serves on the faculty. “But I also know that the people he’s mentored in Liberia are caring for him. . . . He’s surrounded by people that he loves and he’s in the place that he loves.”
Dr. Warren Ferguson, professor of family medicine and community health, said Sacra came back to Worcester about five times over the past two decades, staying each time for a year or two. He was living in Massachusetts, with occasional trips to Liberia, for the past year. When two health care workers came down with Ebola, Sacra felt compelled to go back, leaving Aug. 1.
“He’s been e-mailing us with stories about his clinical work since returning to Liberia,” Ferguson said. “He’s been shouldering a lot of the work of taking care of women who are pregnant, taking care of their labor and delivery.”
An Aug. 30 blog post under Sacra’s name said doctors had performed 35 caesarean sections in his first 20 days back in Liberia. The “iScripts” blog, which is registered under a SIM e-mail address to Rick and Debbie Sacra, described desperate health care conditions as hospitals closed for decontamination. It said ELWA reopened Aug. 6 after a cleansing.
Van Duyne, the UMass professor, said she has known Sacra since childhood and grew up “looking up to him big time.”
“He’s been a mentor to me,” she said, momentarily breaking down at a UMass news conference. She spent a few months working with him in Monrovia, where she said his ability to relate to patients and explain their illnesses was inspiring.
Sacra has a home at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in Holden, and his wife, Debbie, has stayed there during his most recent trip. They have three grown sons. The family left a typed statement on a clipboard outside the house, where two police officers were on hand to ensure privacy.
“Rick would want me to urge you to remember that there are many people in Liberia who are suffering in this epidemic, and others who are not receiving standard health care because clinics and hospitals have been forced to close,” the statement said. “West Africa is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis and the world needs to respond compassionately and generously.”
Steve Goyette, 47, who has lived across the street from the Sacras for 12 years, said he was shocked to learn of the doctor’s illness. With the Ebola crisis at its height, he said, “I thought it was very brave of him to go back.”
Doug Sacra, the doctor’s brother, said in a phone interview that Rick Sacra was doing his “life’s work” when he became ill. “He signed up to serve God by being a missionary doctor,” he said.
Frances Anthes, president of Family Health Center in Worcester, said Sacra worked at the clinic when he was in Massachusetts, treating patients of all ages and training residents.
“He’s brave and he’s got a spiritual side to him, but mostly he’s a regular guy,” she said. “He’s got a really great sense of humor. He’s warm. He’s a team player. He’s a really good doctor.”
US officials warned Wednesday that the Ebola outbreak, which has touched five West African countries and killed at least 1,900 people, will likely spread.
“This is not an African disease. This is a virus that is a threat to all humanity,’’ Gayle Smith, special assistant to President Obama and senior director at the National Security Council, told reporters during a telephone briefing.
The disease is spreading faster than health workers can keep up with it, said Tom
Kenyon of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who recently visited the affected region and who also spoke in the briefing.
Kenyon said that to halt the virus, measures used in previous outbreaks must be implemented: isolating and treating the sick, monitoring their contacts for signs of disease, and safely burying the dead. He said experimental vaccines and treatments would not be available in time to make a difference.
One such experimental drug, ZMapp, was given to seven people infected in the outbreak.
The drug’s maker has said its doses are exhausted, and it will be months before more can be made.
It is not clear if the drug is effective because human trials have not been carried out. Some of the people who received ZMapp died, while others, including Brantly and Writebol, firstname.lastname@example.org and Felice J. Freyer at email@example.com.