Alumna Dr. Deborah Eisenhut honored for her international work

Winner of the 2015 Esther Pohl Lovejoy Leadership Award

Debbie Eisenhut

April 23, 2015

The OHSU School of Medicine Alumni Association's Lovejoy award was established in 2008 in honor of Esther Pohl Lovejoy, an 1894 graduate of the OHSU School of Medicine who helped establish several international medical organizations. It honors an OHSU School of Medicine alumnus or alumna who has demonstrated exceptional leadership and service to the medical profession on a national or international level. Learn more about our alumni awards.

Deborah Eisenhut, M.D. '81, has been drawn to missionary work since she was a teenager, serving in medical missions all over the world. But it was her efforts to help contain last year's Ebola outbreak in Liberia that caught the world's attention.

In 2007, Dr. Eisenhut quit her job in private surgical practice in Salem, Ore., to become a medical missionary – though she'd already made some short mission visits to India, Haiti, Mexico, Nigeria and Rwanda. Accepted by WorldVenture, a missionary organization whose work includes medical aid, Dr. Eisenhut first traveled to Pakistan and stayed for a little under four years.

Now working with the missionary group SIM, Dr. Eisenhut's most recent mission was a stay in Liberia that lasted nearly two years and encompassed the worst phase of that country's Ebola outbreak. Throughout last year, international media covered their front-line efforts. In fact, Time magazine's 2014 Person of the Year issue named "Ebola fighters" collectively, and in its coverage of their fight to contain the epidemic featured Dr. Eisenhut's work prominently.

Dr. Eisenhut arrived in Liberia in April 2013, about a year before the most recent outbreak began. At SIM's Eternal Love Winning Africa hospital in Monrovia, she worked to establish protocols and improvements for patient care.

eisenhut liberia

It was daunting work. Fourteen years of near continuous civil war created a "brain drain," in which many educated people fled the country. At the height of the epidemic last fall, fewer than 170 doctors lived in Liberia, which has a population of three million people.

The need for medical care and educational resources was acute, she said. The hospital had no protocol requiring health care workers to wash hands, for example, and no place to do it. There was running water in the hospital, but most of the plumbing was broken, Dr. Eisenhut said.

Dr. Eisenhut pointed to the lack of basic medical infrastructure – clean water, sanitation protocols and quality instruments – as one of the reasons Liberia was particularly hard-hit when Ebola started spreading throughout West Africa last year.

While working in the Monrovia hospital, Dr. Eisenhut said she first heard about Ebola in March of 2014, when the World Health Organization reported outbreaks in nearby countries. She researched the disease to prepare herself and her colleagues for the likelihood of an outbreak, finding that while Ebola is less contagious than the common cold – it's transmitted through bodily fluids rather than air droplets – workers would still need to isolate Ebola patients in order to give them appropriate care and protect others from the virus. Lacking an isolation ward, the team converted the hospital's chapel into an Ebola treatment center.

Were it not for that advanced planning, Liberia's mortality rate surely would have been higher. "As in any resource-poor setting, it is very hard to care for patients who would thrive in the United States with modern medical care but who die or suffer in places like Liberia," Dr. Eisenhut said.

The most recent Ebola outbreak has killed nearly 10,000 people to date, including 4,000 in Liberia. The virus has claimed the lives of 11 doctors.

Before returning to the U.S. last August, Dr. Eisenhut helped treat Nancy Writebol and Dr. Kent Brantly, two medical missionaries who contracted the virus but have since made a full recovery.

"Debbie, along with the rest of the team, did everything they could to treat my illness and save my life," recalled Dr. Brantly. "I will be forever grateful."

After her colleagues were sickened, Dr. Eisenhut monitored her temperature twice a day – fever is the first symptom of the disease – but never got sick. She and 10 colleagues were quarantined by government order when they returned to the U.S. They simply stayed contained to SIM headquarters in North Carolina, wanting to be cooperative although they disagreed with the order.

While contemplating her next steps, Dr. Eisenhut has assisted with short courses at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, informing others about working in Ebola units.

"She is a tremendous surgeon and a person of deep faith," said John Fankhauser, M.D., a family physician from Ventura, Calif., who worked alongside Dr. Eisenhut in Liberia before and during the 2014 outbreak. "She is someone who lives out her faith by serving others."

In April, Dr. Eisenhut returned to Liberia to continue working at the Monrovia hospital.