Robot and its West Ashley inventor head to Liberia to fight Ebola virus

Jeff Deal

The weird thing is the robot resembles a Star Wars robot, either that or a fluorescent light fixture. The astonishing thing is Dr. Jeff Deal virtually bets his life on it.

Deal, of West Ashley, arrives Wednesday in Liberia, headed for at least one hospital or clinic working with patients who have Ebola hemorrhagic fever, the virus that has killed more than 1,225 people so far, many of them health workers trying to treat the disease.

It is wreaking deadly havoc in four countries: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.

Deal has volunteered to train hospital staff how to work with a remote-control robot that emits ultraviolet light powerful enough to decontaminate rooms of deadly stuff like E. coli and staph. Deal, and his brother, David Deal, invented it.

He's not worried about Ebola while he's there because of the machine, he says simply. "It works."

The five-foot-tall device kills virus cells by irradiating them, destroying the DNA. It can only be used on equipment and facilities because the ray it emits is strong enough to destroy human DNA too. It is so effective that it is used in some 300 hospitals across the country, including the Veterans Administration hospital in Charleston.

When recent U.S. Army tests showed the device easily could kill the Ebola virus, Deal, 60, didn't hesitate - despite the danger of the virus and the violence it has stirred. He arrives in Liberia with a return ticket for the last flight out before air service is shut down entirely at the end of the month - because of the threat of the disease - and no assurance service won't be stopped before that flight.

Tru-D SmartUVC, the Memphis, Tenn. company now holding a patent for the device, donated two of the $100,000-plus machines that had been used in a just-completed study. The two things the company asked for were assurance that qualified people would accept them and a that qualified person train them. Liberian officials asked Deal to come.

"We felt we could help," said Chuck Dunn, Tru-D SmartUVC president. "Jeff Deal is a very brave man."

Deal is a man with a pastoral demeanor and an "aw shucks" quality to his voice. A former surgeon, he turned to studying tropical diseases after retinal disease blinded him in one eye. He now works for Water Missions International in North Charleston, which builds water purifications devices for communities without sanitation. The company has been quick to offer assistance in other disasters like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

"If you asked who are the most equipped people to do something like this, I'd say Jeff Deal is right at the top of the list, and this is his passion," said George Greene IV, Water Missions president.

Deal's passion comes from learning first-hand the health threats to emerging communities and the cultural ethos that must be worked with to improve their health, he said. For instance, recent violence was stirred at a clinic in Liberia when workers cremated the bodies of deceased patients - a violation of the culture's beliefs.

Deal is a Southern Baptist, who tells people with a smile, "I don't pretend to be a particularly good one." His devotion to the people and the work is simple.

"'The least of these,'" he said, referencing the Biblical passage in which Jesus tells disciples whatever they do for the least of his brothers, they do for him. "They deserve just what you deserve. You deserve safe hospitals, and they deserve safe hospitals. There's nothing special about me. All these people who enable me, they're special."

He talks about the Liberian violence being spurred by "moral panic" over a perceived threat to the society. By quelling the threat you quell the panic. "You actually get to be a peacemaker."

The robot is a piece of work. It talks. It tells people to leave the room when it's ready to work. It shuts itself down automatically if a door is opened. It shuts itself down when the decontamination is complete and notifies the operator.

And "it's extraordinarily easy to operate," Deal said.

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Previous versions of this story incorrectly identified where Dr. Jeff Deal resides.