DOLO TOWN, Liberia — Isaac is a man who has lost literally everything.
Ebola killed his family and stole his friends, who shunned him when he came back from the hospital. Neighbors wouldn’t let him use the water pump, so he had no water. Food is scarce, and best found by sharing, and Isaac had no one left to share with him.
And even though it had already taken everything else, Ebola went after his home. It took his clothes and his shoes and his bed and his soccer posters, his forks and his knives and his spoons.
Isaac is an Ebola survivor, a statistical rarity in West Africa, where the relentless virus has killed nearly 5,000 people so far, according to the World Health Organization. The few who live may offer hope to those fighting for their lives in treatment wards and purpose to those struggling to care for them.
But Isaac is not a symbol. He is a man with nothing left, and his story is a reminder that at every turn, Ebola resists the heroic narrative arc.
In late August, his mother-in-law took sick, and his wife went to care for her. Altogether, 18 people died in that house. Isaac’s mother-in-law died in her daughter’s lap.
So Isaac’s wife got Ebola, because that is what happens when you take care of your mother. And then she miscarried after seven months of pregnancy, because that is what universally happens when you are pregnant and you get Ebola: Before you lose your own life, you lose your baby.
When she started to bleed, Isaac took her to the clinic. It was full of people. She waited. No one helped. Then she vomited. The health care staffers panicked — vomit is one of Ebola’s best known symptoms — and they said they would send her away. But first, they wanted Isaac to clean up her blood.
It was nighttime. They gave him a flashlight. He got on his hands and knees, and he scrubbed his wife’s blood from the clinic floor. “I used my bare hands. No gloves,” he said. “I smelled like her blood for three days.”
By the time the smell left him, his wife was dead. Eleven days later, his 3-year-old son died too. And then Isaac, too, got sick.
“My eyes got dark. I couldn’t see anything for two hours. I sat down on a bench. My son’s body was still in the room. My skin got hot! I could feel the heat from my body,” he said.
He thought it might be malaria. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t toilet,” he said. And then he couldn’t stop the vomiting, the diarrhea. “I felt like there was food in my chest that wanted to blow through me, boom!” he said.
His mouth turned sore and dry. Blisters lined his lips, puckered down the back of his throat. “My teeth were sour,” he said. “I was alone.”
Dolo Town was under quarantine: No one in, no one out. Which had been the case in Issac’s home for weeks, anyway. No one wanted to be inside an Ebola house.
Neighbors whose kindness held stronger than fear left him water and food outside his door. But Isaac was also afraid: He was afraid if they knew how sick he was, they’d stop coming, and he’d definitely die.
“If I vomited, I would take off my shirt and clean it up, so that they couldn’t see it and be afraid,” he said. But they caught on. “They could see some of the vomit in my nose.”
Eventually, his sister managed to get an ambulance to him, and he was taken to Monrovia, nearly a two-hour drive, and admitted to a Doctors Without Borders treatment center for Ebola.
He wasn’t admitted without a fight — not because he wanted get into the treatment center, which was the case when beds were too few, but because he wanted to stay out. Isaac knew he was sick, but he also knew people died in those round, white tents. As the sun set, a white woman coaxed him into coming inside, so that the night chill didn’t make his condition worse. But what he saw inside terrified him even more.
“People were crying for people. Some of them were bleeding. Some of them were toileting. They were naked, and some of them were dead. People were leaking from their eyes,” Isaac said. He sat in a chair, as far from the other patients as he could. But the next morning, Isaac, too weak to resist any longer, crumpled.
Eight days later, he stood up and walked out.
He doesn’t have too much to say about those eight days. He lay in bed and did what the doctors asked. It wasn’t much: Stay hydrated. Try to stay clean. You can give Ebola patients fluids and rehydration salts and, if they’re so badly off they can’t drink, an IV. But mostly, it’s a waiting game: Will Ebola overwhelm Isaac, or will his body fight back fast enough to keep him alive?
Isaac won, though very little about it feels like winning. He left the treatment ward and went home, to the house where his wife and son died. He had been robbed while he was away, but no matter: Whatever the thieves had left, Isaac had been instructed to burn.
Isaac, like most Ebola survivors in Liberia, is not a rich man. He’s done day jobs most of his life, and in the cash-only economy of the very poor, Isaac doesn’t have any savings. All the money he had in the world, he used to buy the things his family needed to live.
But now his family was dead, and even the things they left behind were infected.
So he took the mattress where he’d made love to his wife out into his yard. He brought out the blanket on which his son died, the table where the family ate, the bench he sat on when his vision quit. He peeled the posters and calendars with glossy images of his favorite footballers from the walls, and he collected every fork, knife and spoon his Ebola-infected family had ever eaten from. He took every last thing he owned, and he lit it all on fire.
This is the part — this final insult — that’s hardest for Isaac to talk about.
“Every time, you work you work, you save you save, and now it all goes in there, burning,” Isaac said. “I feel too bad. I don’t even want to tell you about it.”
Isaac is not alone. There aren’t great figures on the number of survivors of Ebola in Liberia, though the Ebola ward where Isaac was treated, operated by Doctors Without Borders, last week said it has seen 1,000 survivors walk out of its tents. The World Health Organization says roughly 30% of Ebola patients in this outbreak are surviving.
But numbers have a tendency to hide as much reality as they reveal, and that’s especially true of Ebola. By the World Health Organization’s count, Ebola has hit
about 4,600 people in Liberia — slightly less than 1/1,000th of the population of 4.2 million.
So your chances of getting Ebola, even in Liberia, are slim. But chances are, if you do, you’re going to lose just about everyone you love. Like an ancient plague, Ebola tries to wipe out whole families. Those it doesn’t kill, it cuts off from society.
A 15-year-old girl in Isaac’s community lost eight of the family members she lived with. Thirty-year-old Janet lost her husband and five of her six children. John, who is 37, cared for his father-in-law, who died. Then his mother-in-law died, and then their three children died. Then John, the last one living under that roof, got sick too.
Twenty-year-old Amelia got Ebola from being best friends with the daughter of a doctor. So many clinics are closed across the country, and her friend’s father was treating people at their houses. Eventually, he got sick, and his daughter cared for him.
“We did everything together — sleeping, eating, everything. On Saturday, we both went to the ETU [Ebola treatment unit] together,” Amelia said. “Then it was Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Wednesday, she died. I saw them take her body.”
Amelia’s is a kind of pain an outsider has to know how to listen for. “I felt fine,” she said, speaking of her body after Ebola, “but I feel bad.” That’s about her soul, and it’s still troubled by the death of her best friend. “I feel so bad because I wanted to come back together.”
When Amelia finally went home, alone, her mother was afraid of her. “She told my brothers, no playing around me. But at the hospital, they said we should be more afraid of them,” she said.
Here’s the most brutal irony of being an Ebola survivor: When you go home, everyone is afraid of you, but having survived the disease, you are immune.
“They called me ‘Ebola Man,’” John said. Neighbors wouldn’t let Isaac draw water from the well, and friends refused to come visit Janet. (The stigma survivors face in Liberia is why BuzzFeed News is only using first names.)
This epithet — Ebola Man, Ebola Woman, Ebola Family — is something Alexander Blackie hears all the time. Blackie coordinates community dialogues for the Carter Center for Mental Health. He’s a physician’s assistant by medical training, and with a small cadre of other health workers the Carter Center has trained over the years in mental health, Blackie is bringing together communities of survivors to help them brainstorm solutions to stigma.
“This can become aggression in some communities. Survivors want people to recognize them as human beings, not a virus. You see the anger builds up,” he said. “There are times a woman is discharged, and her husband rejects her. He leaves her and the children. Or a woman divorces her husband [after he comes home]. So how can we sit together, discuss this, and come to a settlement? We cannot find the settlement for them, but we can help in the process.”
The process takes time, trust — and touch. Blackie’s dialogue groups meet once a week for 10 weeks. In one group’s first meeting, it’s hard for people to share their stories of survival — of who they lost, of how their friends shunned them — even though everyone in the room has been through something similar.
Most of the 30 people in the room share the same problem: They feel the worst when they’re alone, but no one will come visit them. The group encourages one another to go visit those friends who don’t come around, to ask what happened, to explain that it’s safe to share food again. Failing that, everyone agrees, the best thing is to find a radio and listen to music. Or if you can’t get a radio, sing your own song.
But Emmanuel Reeves, a Carter Center mental health worker who leads the dialogue groups in Dolo Town, knows that the most crucial step is not something the survivors can necessarily do for themselves. It’s something Reeves and others have to do: to touch them.
“We have a saying, that actions speak louder than words,” Reeves tells a new survivors’ group. He talks about another group he started not long ago and nearby, where community members “told people not even to pass by [survivors’] yards. They got a well where they would fetch water all the time, but when they came [back from treatment], they were stopped.
“But I walked to their houses. We talk, we visit, and we moved [through the community] hand in hand. We moved together as family. I did not say a word to the people who ostracized them. And they gave back the keys to the well.”
This kind of transformation takes manpower, horsepower, and courage, first and foremost from survivors. But Reeves and Blackie and their colleagues are determined to keep it up.
“That’s how we lived in Liberia before — when you have a problem, it is not your problem alone,” Blackie said. “Eventually Ebola will go. But we will still be here.”
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