EBOLA SURVIVOR: Minn. missionary contracted virus in 1972 - KMSP-TV

EBOLA SURVIVOR: Minn. missionary contracted virus in 1972

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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (KMSP) -

Sadly, most Ebola patients die from the disease -- and that's why a doctor from Bloomington, Minn., knows he's lucky to be alive because he contracted the virus before anyone knew what it was.

Dr. Tom Cairns was doing missionary work in Africa when he fell ill. Now, hundreds of deaths have been attributed to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Travel restrictions are in place, and many flights from the United States have been canceled.

"Some of our colleagues were going to have a meeting there, and they were asking if it's safe to go," Cairns told Fox 9 News. "I said, 'I don't think it's a great idea.'"

Cairns is speaking from experience. He survived a bout with the Ebola virus back in 1972 -- and he said the experience was anything but pleasant.

"Bad memories, concern because I remember how it was," Cairns reflected. "The first two weeks I was sick, I barely knew what was going on. I was almost in a stupor."

In 1970, Cairns arrived in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as a missionary. He was serving as a doctor at the local hospital when a patient died from a mysterious illness. Authorities asked for an autopsy, and during the procedure, a 30-year-old Cairns stuck himself with a scalpel.

"Twelve days later, I became seriously ill," Cairns remembered. "Very, acutely ill with high fever, headache and rash -- and aching. Tremendous aching throughout the body."

At the time, the cause of the symptoms was unknown and Cairns was cared for by his wife at their home. He was treated with IVs manufactured in the village -- and aspirin. When asked how he survived, he said, "The grace of God."

"I know no other way," Cairns explained. "A lot of prayer going out. When you consider this disease now has a reputation of 90 percent fatality rate, I know of no other way. It was a miracle."

Four years later, the first epidemic struck a couple hundred miles away. The CDC came in during the 1976 outbreak and named the disease after the river in Zaire where it is believed to have originated.

"They started drawing blood on multiple people -- Africans and the foreigners," Cairns told Fox 9 News. "Out of the 50 they drew blood on, everybody was negative except me. I was positive for Ebola antibody."

With the largest outbreak in history still growing 40 years after Cairns' own experience with Ebola, many are frightened that the disease may spread -- especially after two people were flown to Atlanta to be treated. Now, the big question is: Should people be concerned about bringing the disease to the United States? For that, Cairns has a simple answer.

"I don't think so at all," he assured. "I'm really confident. We have a good medial system -- the best in the world, and the ways of preventing spread of contagions are so excellent, I just don't see that's a concern."

Even so, the Cairns are working to raise money to help the Ebola fight in Africa through their church, the Evangelical Free Church of America.

GIVE NOW: Donate to Ebola response

Donations can also be made online, and donors can even select specific causes, set up recurring payments or give gifts of stock to the Evangelical Free Church of America. More information can be found here: http://www.efca.org/give

MORE: EFCA's Ebola Crisis Response

Fox 9 News checked with a number of local hospitals and the Mayo Clinic on Tuesday, and all said they are able to handle a person who may walk in with Ebola symptoms. In fact, they have gone through scenarios and collected the necessary tools to take on an infectious disease.

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