From Presidents to Popes and Bad Guys to Average Joes, the TIME Person of the Year has always captured our attentions and affected our lives,“for good or ill,” as TIME editors are always quick to point out.
This year’s inspired selection of Ebola caregivers as the collective 2014 winner falls clearly in the “for good” camp, honoring thousands of men and women who have risked their own lives to serve and protect others in West Africa and around the world.
Even among caregivers—for whom sacrifice is practically written into the job description—these particular workers have gone above and beyond.
Just imagine the hazards and obstacles they faced: they’ve left their friends and families and traveled far away for extended periods of time—sometimes without pay or without the guarantee that their jobs will be waiting for them when they get back.
They’ve spent their days on the front lines of the fight against a highly infectious disease for which there is currently no vaccine or cure.
They’ve done their jobs in the sweltering heat, wearing protective gear that requires incredible focus in the face of unbearably hot temperatures—knowing that even one mistake could mean infection.
They’ve done this with compassion, coming up with creative ways to make sure the individuals in their treatment units—removed from their families and isolated from human touch—still know they are cared for.
They’ve watched complete strangers and beloved colleagues die around them. And they’ve done all of this knowing that when they come home, they might face stigma and fear, rather than the embraces and praise they deserve.
These health care workers—who, incidentally, aren’t all do-gooder Westerners, but also locals, Congolese, Cubans, and other global citizens—are not just providing a service for the people of West Africa. If we’re thinking purely in terms of our own self-interest, they are also our best lines of defense in ensuring that Ebola is tamped down at its source and not able to spread further abroad.
They remind us that investments in strengthening health systems and in ensuring that every community around the world has access to health care workers are absolutely essential for our collective security.
Above all—in a year with so much violence and conflict and misery—the Ebola caregivers remind us of humanity’s capacity to do good, to be brave, and to serve others. But don’t take it from me, or from TIME—take a dose of inspiration straight from the source by listening to their stories: