BLOOMINGTON, Minn. - A Bloomington man is perhaps the first ever non-African to survive Ebola.
Dr. Tom Cairns actually had Ebola before it even had a name.
As a new doctor in Africa, Cairns knew he'd be dealing with a number of exotic ailments from anthrax, to snakebites and much more. He didn't know he'd play a role in discovering a new one.
"We had no idea what he had," Cairns recalled. "It didn't fit any of the classic textbook pictures of any of the diseases."
Cairns was in Zaire in 1972. He was a missionary doctor performing an autopsy on a patient who died before they could diagnose him.
"In so doing, I nicked my finger with a scalpel, and it was two weeks later I came down acutely ill with a serious illness."
For weeks he suffered high fever, vomiting and tremendous aching, still unaware at what he was suffering from.
"I lost 20 pounds in the process and finally recovered enough to go back up to the hospital part-time and start getting back into my schedule again."
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. Of the 602 cases -- 431 suffered painful, violent deaths. The waterway that cut through the affected area, was the Ebola River.
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 50 or so in the area that they drew blood on, all were negative for Ebola antibody except one and that was me," Cairns said.
That's when Cairns learned -- four years earlier -- he had survived the Ebola virus.
"I was probably the first ever non-African survivor of Ebola," he said.
At 71, Cairns now lives in Bloomington and is semi-retired practicing at a hospital in Apple Valley.
He will never forget his time in Zaire, the lives he helped save, and the illness that nearly killed him.
"I'm very thankful that I was the one 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.