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FORT WORTH Friends and colleagues say Dr. Kent Brantly went to Liberia to become a medical missionary for Samaritan's Purse. He was practicing family medicine when Ebola patients began showing up at his hospital.

'As the epidemic began to unfold, Kent found himself in a very difficult circumstance,' said JPS Hospital child health director Dr. David McRay. 'He was asked to serve as the medical director of the isolation unit for Ebola.'

The biggest-ever outbreak of the disease has already claimed more than 670 lives in the West African nations of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

McRay helped train Brantly, who graduated from residency at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth last summer.

Despite extreme precautions including a full body suit and strict decontamination protocols the 33-year-old physician fell ill last week with what was at first thought to be malaria.

'His symptoms developed on Wednesday, with fever, headache, abdominal pain... and have progressed,' McRay said.

Brantly 'went into Ebola exhausted' from treating Ebola patients, McRay said after speaking with him Monday. His prognosis is grave, and efforts to evacuate him to Europe for treatment have been thwarted because of concerns expressed by countries he would have to fly over en route to any European destination, McRay said.

Colleagues at JPS say they are praying for Brantly with a compassionate heart.

'He has deep faith, and he's leaning on that,' said JPS family medicine Dr. Jason Brewington. 'He's leaning on that... his church family.'

From Brantly's bed in an isolation ward where he and Samaritan's Purse colleague Nancy Writebol are both being treated for Ebola symptoms the Texas physician sent this message back to his friends at JPS:

'I'm praying fervently that God will help me survive this disease. Please continue to pray along with me and pray for my friend Nancy who is also very sick, and for the doctors who are taking care of us. Thank you all so much. Peace, Kent.'

Brantly insists that there was no breach of his safety gear while treating Ebola patients, so it is possible his infection came from exposure to the general population in Liberia, away from the hospital.

Liberia's health ministry is investigating how Brantly contracted the virus.

'We're trying to figure out what went wrong, because he was always very careful,' said Tolbert Nyenswah, an assistant health minister in Monrovia.

The doctor's wife and children had been with him in Liberia, but they are currently in Texas, where they learned about the Kent's diagnosis.

They left Africa several days before Brantly fell ill, and health authorities say their risk of exposure to the disease is low to non-existent, and that the risk to the general public is nil. Family members are being monitored by state health officials as a precaution.

Stephan Monroe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday that 'Ebolaposes little risk to the general U.S. population.'

'Kent prepared himself to be a lifetime medical missionary,' said the stricken doctor's mother, Jan Brantly. 'His heart is in Africa.'

The Associated Press contributed to this report

E-mail jstjames@wfaa.com

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