How my son sur­vived Ebola

Amid all the loss and suf­fer­ing due to the out­break of Ebola in west African coun­tries, there are sev­eral sto­ries of sur­vival. Alexan­der Kol­lie tells how his son, James, beat the odds

CityPress - - Voices - James Kol­lie is the 1 000th sur­vivor cared for in Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders’ Ebola care cen­tres across Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia since the group be­gan re­spond­ing to the Ebola out­break in west Africa in March 2014. Close to 3 000 Doc­tors With­out Bord

Sun­day, Septem­ber 21 is a day I will never for­get in my life. I was out work­ing with Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders as a health pro­mo­tion of­fi­cer, vis­it­ing vil­lages and telling peo­ple about Ebola: how to pro­tect them­selves and their fam­i­lies, what to do if they start to de­velop symp­toms, and mak­ing sure ev­ery­one had the Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders hot­line num­ber to call. When I was fin­ish­ing up the day, I got a call from my wife’s num­ber, but it was not her. I an­swered the phone, but no­body spoke. She was stay­ing in Liberia’s cap­i­tal, Mon­rovia, with three of our chil­dren while I was work­ing in Foya, in the north of Liberia.

At that time, Ebola had come to Liberia so I tried to talk to my fam­ily about the virus and to ed­u­cate them, but my wife did not be­lieve in it. I called my wife beg­ging her to leave Mon­rovia and bring the chil­dren north so we could be to­gether here. She did not lis­ten. She de­nied Ebola.

Later that night, my brother called me. “Your wife has died.” I said: “What?” He said: “Bendu is dead.” I dropped the phone. I threw it away and it broke apart. We were to­gether for 23 years. She un­der­stood me. She was the only one who un­der­stood me very well. I felt like I’d lost my whole mem­ory. My eyes were open, but I didn’t know what I was look­ing at. I had no vi­sion.

Later that same week, I re­ceived another call from Mon­rovia. My brother, who was work­ing as a nurse, had been tak­ing care of my wife. But he be­came in­fected and died too. Then my two youngest chil­dren were taken to the cen­tre in Mon­rovia, but my girls were very sick and they died. I felt even more help­less. I was break­ing in my mind. I couldn’t make sense of any­thing.

My el­dest son, Kol­lie James, was still in Mon­rovia in the house where our fam­ily had been sick, though he was show­ing no signs of ill­ness. He called me and said: “Ev­ery­one got sick, I don’t know what to do.” I told him to come here to Foya to be with me.

When my son ar­rived, peo­ple in the vil­lage would not ac­cept us. They told us that our fam­ily had all died and to take Kol­lie James away. I was an­gered by their re­ac­tion. I knew he wasn’t show­ing any symp­toms and was not a threat to them, but be­cause of the stigma, they wouldn’t let us stay. We had to move on.

The next morn­ing, I no­ticed my son look­ing more tired than usual. I was wor­ried about him. He didn’t have any symp­toms like vom­it­ing or di­ar­rhoea, but he just looked tired. I called the Ebola hot­line and Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders brought him to their Ebola care cen­tre in Foya to be tested.

When the test came back pos­i­tive, it was a night of agony for me. I didn’t even shut my eyes for one sec­ond. I spent the whole night just cry­ing and think­ing about what would hap­pen now to my son.

The next day, the psy­choso­cial coun­sel­lors at Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders calmed me down. They told me to wait. To hold my peace. I sat with them, and we talked and talked.

I was able to see Kol­lie in the care cen­tre from across the fence, so I called out to him: “Son, you’re the only hope I got. You have to take courage. Any

Papa, I un­der­stand. I will do it. Stop cry­ing Papa. I will not die. I will sur­vive Ebola. My sis­ters are gone, but I am go­ing to sur­vive and I will make you proud

medicine they give to you, you have to take it.” He told me: “Papa, I un­der­stand. I will do it. Stop cry­ing Papa. I will not die. I will sur­vive Ebola. My sis­ters are gone, but I am go­ing to sur­vive and I will make you proud.”

Ev­ery day, the coun­sel­lors made sure they saw me, and they sat with me so I could talk. The way the coun­sel­lors talked to me helped me to re­lax. They knew it’s not a small blow that I was re­ceiv­ing in life. I didn’t want to see my son in there. When I saw him in there, I thought about his mother. I had al­ready lost her, I wanted him to sur­vive. I wanted him to be strong.

After some time, my son started do­ing much bet­ter. He was mov­ing around. I prayed that he would be free of Ebola and test neg­a­tive, but I was wor­ried that his eyes were still red. I just wanted us to be to­gether again. Then some­thing amaz­ing hap­pened, some­thing I could not ac­tu­ally be­lieve un­til I saw it.

Un­til the mo­ment I saw him com­ing out­side, I could not truly be­lieve that it would hap­pen. I’ve seen peo­ple with Ebola start to look strong and then the next day, they’re just gone. So I was also think­ing, maybe Kol­lie will be one of those who will be gone the next day. When fi­nally I saw him come out, I felt so very, very happy. I looked at him and he said to me: “Pa, I am well.” I hugged him. Lots of peo­ple came to see him when he came out­side. Every­body was so happy to see him out­side.

Then Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders told me that Kol­lie is the 1 000th sur­vivor of Ebola. This is a great thing, but I was won­der­ing, how many more peo­ple have we lost? How many have not sur­vived? Of course I am so happy to have Kol­lie still, but it’s hard not to think of all those who are no longer with us.

When I took him home with me, he ac­tu­ally had a smil­ing face. And me too, I had a big smile on my face. I had a very good smile that day. I de­cided to have a lit­tle party for him. Since then, we do ev­ery­thing to­gether. We sleep to­gether, we eat to­gether and we have been con­vers­ing a lot. I asked him: “What’s your am­bi­tion after you grad­u­ate from high school?” He’s a 10th grade stu­dent. He told me that he wants to study bi­ol­ogy and be­come a med­i­cal doc­tor. That’s what he told me!

So now I’m go­ing to try ev­ery way I can to meet his needs and suc­ceed in life, so that he should not feel so bad about the pain he has suf­fered los­ing his mother. I told him: “Now I am your mother and your fa­ther. I am serv­ing as both for you now.” And on his side he told me: “I will do ev­ery­thing for you as my fa­ther.” He is so pleased I called him to be with me. The care that was given to him here was 100%.

Now that my son is free of Ebola, we will make a life for our­selves. He is 16 now, so I will make him my friend. Not just my son, but my friend, be­cause he’s the only one I have to talk to. I can­not re­place my wife, but I can make a new life with our son.

Kate Thomas: Of all three coun­tries af­fected by Ebola, Liberia has been hit hard­est, with the high­est case load. Why do you think that is?

Blair Glen­corse: One rea­son Liberia is hav­ing such a dif­fi­cult time with Ebola is to do with the ex­clu­sion­ary na­ture of power and re­sources through­out Liberia’s his­tory. The coun­try has been con­trolled by a small group of elites for a long, long time. It’s an ex­trac­tive [min­ing] so­ci­ety where a small group of peo­ple is pulling a lot of the re­sources out and not putting a lot back in. If you com­bine that with the eco­nomic prob­lems and now health prob­lems, you have a com­bustible com­bi­na­tion. You have a lot of peo­ple who feel ex­cluded, who have no stake in the sys­tem and who have no sense of up­ward so­cial mo­bil­ity.

From the be­gin­ning of the out­break there was a cri­sis of trust in Liberia and a gap in terms of ad­e­quate in­for­ma­tion about the virus and how it spreads. How has this fu­elled the spread of Ebola?

Many peo­ple didn’t have ac­cess to re­li­able in­for­ma­tion from the out­set, or if they did, they didn’t nec­es­sar­ily have much faith in it. Be­cause peo­ple had be­come used to a legacy of mis­man­age­ment and cor­rup­tion, the gov­ern­ment was not a trusted voice. In the Liberian slum com­mu­nity of West Point, there was no com­mu­ni­ca­tion about plans to quar­an­tine the area in Au­gust. Peo­ple just woke up one morn­ing to find the com­mu­nity quar­an­tined.

We also have to look at the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity and its in­put. In­ter­na­tional ac­tors are not al­ways good at un­der­stand­ing the re­la­tion­ships and the in­cen­tives that drive be­hav­iour in Liberia, and they don’t al­ways take the time to re­ally un­der­stand them.

The Liberian health sys­tem is a clas­sic ex­am­ple: a lot of ef­fort has been put into try­ing to train Liberian doc­tors and health­care work­ers, but as soon as a cri­sis like this arises, it falls to bits.

We haven’t built the softer un­der­stand­ing of how peo­ple in­ter­act with each other and what the cul­tural norms are in times of crises.

What role can civil so­ci­ety play in build­ing so­lu­tions to such emer­gen­cies?

Civil so­ci­ety groups en­gage peo­ple who will then hold the gov­ern­ment ac­count­able for its prom­ises. The younger gen­er­a­tion in Liberia is less en­trenched in pa­tron­age net­works, and is more cre­ative and more in touch with tech­nol­ogy. I think it’s about spend­ing time build­ing lead­er­ship, not just bet­ting on win­ners and then ex­pect­ing them to de­liver.

The youth of Liberia are ob­vi­ously the fu­ture of the coun­try.

There are a lot of very tal­ented, com­mit­ted young peo­ple who know a dif­fer­ent his­tory.

They are bet­ter con­nected than ever be­fore. They have a dif­fer­ent vi­sion for their coun­try and they can be more col­lab­o­ra­tive and col­lec­tively work to­ward shared so­lu­tions in a way that some of the older gen­er­a­tions find more dif­fi­cult be­cause of the di­vi­sions that have ex­isted and the things that they had to live through.

What lessons have been learnt from the way this out­break was han­dled? How might fu­ture crises of the same scale be pre­vented?

We would ar­gue that what needs to be built is a sense of ac­count­abil­ity be­tween cit­i­zens and gov­ern­ment, a sense of in­tegrity. It’s not good enough just to put rules in place and then ex­pect them to work when they don’t fit be­hav­iour. The key is to move beyond the de­pen­dency that’s char­ac­terised the in­ter­na­tional aid sys­tem, to­ward a more cre­ative, imag­i­na­tive fu­ture in which Liberi­ans are given the space to try new things and are sup­ported in ways that al­low them to do that.

PHOTO: KATY ATHERSUCH

LUCKY Ebola sur­vivor James Kol­lie and his fa­ther, Alexan­der, who is a health pro­mo­tion of­fi­cer for Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders in Foya, Liberia. Alexan­der’s wife, daugh­ters and brother died of Ebola

HEALTH ALERT A health worker dons pro­tec­tive gear be­fore en­ter­ing an Ebola treat­ment cen­tre in the west of Free­town, Sierra Leone

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