As a new doctor in Africa, Tom Cairns knew he'd be dealing with a number of exotic ailments. He didn't know he'd play a role in discovering a new one.
It was in Zaire in 1972, Cairns was a missionary doctor performing on a patient who died before he had a chance to diagnose him.
"In so doing, I nicked my finger with a scalpel and it was two weeks later, I came down acutely ill. We didn't even get up to the hospital at the time. I was just cared for right there in our house," Cairns said.
For weeks, Cairns suffered a high fever, vomiting, and tremendous aching. Still unaware of what he even had.
"I lost 20 pounds in the process and finally recovered enough to be able to back up to the hospital part-time and then start getting back into my schedule again," Cairns said.
For years, he continued to work in Zaire. The illness that nearly killed him still remained a mystery. Until 1976, That year, two epidemics of an unknown virus broke out in northern Zaire and southern Sudan. Out of the 602 cases, 431 suffered painful violent deaths. The waterway that cut through the affected area was the Ebola River. The virus had its name.
Cairns says the CDC began testing ex-patriots and medical staff in the area to see if anyone had ever gotten the virus. Among the fifty or so living in the area they drew blood on, all were negative for Ebola antibody except one. That's when Cairns learned four years earlier he had survived the Ebola virus.
At 71 Cairns is semi-retired and now practicing in Napa Valley. He says he'll never forget his time in Zaire, he lives he helped save, and the illness that nearly killed him.
"I'm thankful that I was the one who was chosen to be a survivor. I'm very thankful to god."
Cairns said his blood was actually taken back to Atlanta and stored by the CDC. In the event that someone became infected with Ebola, they could use the antibodies in his blood to help fight the virus.