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
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.
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