Morris Sirleaf and his wife, Fatima, did everything together, “like twins,” he says. “She would wait to eat until I was home,” he remembers. Only a disaster could separate the two, and it did: Fatima fell ill with Ebola.
Morris quickly arranged for Fatima to be driven to a community care center. The car was stopped at the county line: Patients with Ebola symptoms must be in an ambulance to cross the county line, officials said. The ambulance took hours to come. Fatima died waiting.
By the time Morris developed a fever and other signs of Ebola weeks later, things had changed: An Ebola treatment unit (ETU) had been built beside the county hospital. Morris was transferred from a county care center and was among the first patients to occupy one of the ETU’s beds; AmeriCares had fully stocked the ETU with medicine and safety supplies and the International Organization for Migration was managing the operations of the unit. With intravenous fluids, nursing support – and luck – Morris survived.
A village under siege
Ebola had seized the village of Suehn where Morris and Fatima were raising five children. Out of the 290 residents, 11 had fallen ill. During his treatment, Morris saw his neighbors struggle and some die. He lay desperately ill with fever. “I dreamt that I was standing by a hole and three others were in the hole,” he says. In the dream, people came with sticks and threatened to beat him if he didn’t move away from the hole. When awake, friends called him on his cell phone and encouraged him to stay alive, to want to live. Doctors kept him hydrated and coached him to eat and stay strong. Gradually, his symptoms subsided.
After testing negative, Morris returned to Suehn, where his sister was caring for his children. Of the 11 residents sickened, only three had survived: Morris, his mother-in-law, Alice Kpataballah, and a neighbor Younger Davis, who had been one of the figures in his dream.
Though clear of the virus, Morris still suffers from joint pain, weakness and weak vision in his left eye that make it hard to work more than few hours a day farming his property. Social workers from the ETU visit him, and ETU doctors give him medicine for his remaining symptoms.
A survivor joins the fight
Morris now dedicates two days a week to work in his community and spread the message of how to prevent Ebola infection. “People must keep washing their hands and not wash dead bodies,” Morris says. A bucket of chlorinated water stands outside his home with a sticker showing diagrams of proper hand washing technique, helpful for his youngest children who do not read yet.
“Those who are in other places that send their money just for us to be well, I want to tell them thank you,” says Morris. “Because if it were not for their sake, it would not be easy for us in Liberia.”