Ebola sur­vivor gives birth af­ter los­ing 21 rel­a­tives


Ebola did not take Vic­to­ria Yil­lia’s life. And it could not pre­vent the birth of her son.

And yet it loomed, even on this, her hap­pi­est day.

She de­liv­ered her child just a few min­utes’ walk from the ward where just last year she had hov­ered be­tween life and death, and nurses and med­i­cal staff still wore full pro­tec­tive suits and masks for fear of any lin­ger­ing in­fec­tion. Doc­tors gave her for­mula and told her not to nurse her baby un­til they ran tests to be sure there were no traces of the virus in her breast milk.

Her hus­band An­thony beamed in the ma­ter­nity ward as they talked about names for the boy nes­tled in a blan­ket with a yel­low knit cap. But Vic­to­ria burst into tears: Her mother was not here to help her, to show her what to do with her first child. Nor was her grand­mother, or her three older sis­ters.

The cou­ple and their new baby are all that re­main: Twenty-one mem­bers of her fam­ily died of Ebola when the virus ripped through this cor­ner of Sierra Leone.

“Be­cause I lost all my rel­a­tives, God has blessed me and I can start a new fam­ily,” she said, softly cradling the boy. “With this baby, all I have lost has come back to me.”

Vic­to­ria is not just her fam­ily’s sole sur­vivor — she was also the first per­son to sur­vive Ebola in Sierra Leone. Her sur­vival was cel­e­brated na­tion­ally: She met the pres­i­dent, and the day of her re­lease, June 8, is now Na­tional Sur­vivors Day.

The Face, the Mir­ror

If she is the face of sur­vival in Sierra Leone, it is fit­ting that her life of hope and sor­row mir­rors that of an Ebola-rav­aged coun­try strug­gling to move on, de­spite its an­guish.

It all be­gan so hap­pily. She met An­thony in the vil­lage of Koindu when she was just 16. He was volunteering at her school with dreams of be­com­ing a teacher and couldn’t take his eyes off of her. They mar­ried and she stayed be­hind with her fam­ily as he com­pleted his univer­sity stud­ies in Ken­ema.

Soon she was ex­pect­ing, but her first weeks of preg­nancy were fraught with com­pli­ca­tions. Vic­to­ria had no way of know­ing that a nurse who treated her had also come into con­tact with some­one who’d at­tended a fu­neral in Guinea — and brought the deadly Ebola virus across the bor­der.

She lost the baby in late May 2014 just as she was near­ing the end of her first trimester, and she was sent to the ma­ter­nity ward in Ken­ema where her hus­band stud­ied. It was there doc­tors de­ter­mined she was suf­fer­ing from more than a mis­car­riage. The 20-year-old had Ebola.

Mean­while, back home in her vil­lage other fam­ily mem­bers be­gan fall­ing sick.

“We were at the hos­pi­tal when we heard that her sis­ter’s baby boy was dead,” An­thony re­calls. “A few min­utes later they called to say that her mother was sick and two days later she died.”

Soon Vic­to­ria’s fa­ther was fever­ish and ill. Her grand­mother, her three older sis­ters, all died as well. An­thony didn’t know how to tell his wife she was the only sur­vivor, and feared the un­re­lent­ing grief could take her too. The de­ci­sion was made to wait sev­eral weeks un­til she re­gained some strength.

“The pas­tor was called and the trauma was very high. It took a long time for her to be con­soled,” her hus­band re­called. “Af­ter we told her she cried and cried for weeks and days.”

Af­ter her much- pub­li­cized dis­charge from the hos­pi­tal, she re­turned to her vil­lage to re­cover away from the at­ten­tion. With her was Sia, her mother-in-law, who also sur­vived be­cause she was in Ken­ema with Vic­to­ria when ev­ery­one else fell ill. Their re­con­sti­tuted fam­ily also in­cluded a 3-year-old rel­a­tive named Bintu who had lost her par­ents and her sib­lings to Ebola. Vic­to­ria looked af­ter the lit­tle girl while An­thony went back to school.

When Vic­to­ria dis­cov­ered she was preg­nant again, she was sur­prised. Doc­tors had said there was no way of know­ing if she could even carry a child to term af­ter hav­ing Ebola. For rea­sons not yet known, other sur­vivors have suf­fered mis­car­riages or had still­born ba­bies, said nurse ma­tron El­iz­a­beth B.M. Ka­mara at the Ken­ema hos­pi­tal.

In the end, Vic­to­ria’s la­bor was rather or­di­nary. She started con­trac­tions around 9 p. m. on a Satur­day and her son ar­rived the fol­low­ing evening, a healthy 2.8 kilo­grams. Like any new mother, she was ner­vous about hold­ing her child, all the more so be­cause health of­fi­cials wanted to run more tests be­fore let­ting her sleep with the baby or nurse him.

On Thurs­day, she left the hos­pi­tal and headed to the room where she, her hus­band, her mother- in- law and lit­tle Bintu now live. Sia, who had had nine chil­dren of her own, helped Vic­to­ria breast­feed.

The fol­low­ing Sun­day morn­ing, Sia made por­ridge over a coal fire, and hung baby bibs and di­a­pers on the laun­dry line as dark­en­ing clouds hov­ered above. This should have been the child’s nam­ing cer­e­mony — an event that takes place on the sev­enth day af­ter birth, typ­i­cally a joy­ous oc­ca­sion bring­ing to­gether the ex­tended fam­ily. But Vic­to­ria and An­thony put off the cel­e­bra­tion, given their cir­cum­stances.

Nonethe­less, the pas­tor in­sisted the baby should be blessed. Victo- ria changed into her Sun­day finest — a two-piece ensem­ble and head wrap of bright pink-and-turquoise tones. She sidestepped pud­dles as she brought the lit­tle boy to church for the first time.

The pas­tor gave his ser­mon in the cin­der-block church, as parish­ioners sat on wooden benches and plas­tic lawn chairs on dirt floors. Rain rat­tled on the me­tal roof above, muf­fling the voices as Vic­to­ria led the con­gre­ga­tion in “I

Have Faith in God.”

‘Sun­day boy’

The child was passed around by the women of the church, and then the pas­tor blessed him. He called the child “Sun­day Boy” for now; the cou­ple al­ready had cho­sen a name, though it would not be an­nounced just yet. They will call the child Barn­abas — a Bib­li­cal name that of­ten trans­lates as the son of en­cour­age­ment or con­so­la­tion.

“He will be the foun­da­tion of our fam­ily, and a source of com­fort to his mother,” the new fa­ther said proudly. “We pray that he will be­come a suc­cess in life.”

They know the path will not be easy with­out the sup­port of ex­tended fam­ily — no ma­ter­nal cousins for Barn­abas to play with, no ma­ter­nal aunts to dote on him.

The fam­ily will man­age, An­thony said. For him it is still a mir­a­cle: “We are here.”


In this photo taken Aug. 11, Ebola sur­vivor Vic­to­ria Yil­lia cra­dles her new­born son Barn­abas at a ma­ter­nity ward at the Ken­ema gov­ern­ment hos­pi­tal on the out­skirts of Free­town, Sierra Leone.

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