Life After Ebola

Stories of Survivors from Sierra Leone and Liberia

After nearly two years, the largest and deadliest Ebola outbreak in history is finally dwindling. The epidemic ignited worldwide panic as cases of the virus touched 10 countries, killing some 11,300 people. Sierra Leone was declared Ebola-free on November 7th, while Guinea discharged its last known Ebola patient this month. In Liberia, three people tested positive for Ebola last week after months of zero cases, proof that countries must remain vigilant and prepared even after the outbreak is considered over.

International Medical Corps ran five Ebola treatment facilities across Liberia and Sierra Leone that together cared for 450 Ebola patients—195 of whom survived. We followed up with some of the people who overcame the insidious disease in our treatment centers to see where they are today and if Ebola still has lingering effects on their lives.

Korto Johnson and Josephine Sackie, Totota, Liberia

Every patient who was admitted to International Medical Corps’ Ebola treatment facilities faced an uphill battle to survive, but none more so than Josephine Sackie, who fell prey to the virus at just three or four months old.

Her mother, Korto Johnson, contracted Ebola first and entered International Medical Corps’ Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) in Bong County, Liberia in November 2014. Just an infant, Josephine tested negative for the virus and was taken to Phebe Hospital nearby for care while Korto fought for her life inside the ETU. “I [did] not know if I [would] make it because the way my condition [was] looking,” says Korto. “It was looking too bad.”

When she was discharged as an Ebola survivor on December 3, 2014, Korto went straight to collect her daughter at Phebe Hospital. Korto took her home and that night Josephine developed a fever and started vomiting—just as she had experienced a few weeks ago. The next day, Korto took Josephine back to the ETU and everyone’s worst nightmares were confirmed: she tested positive for Ebola. “When they [did] her test for the virus it was not easy,” Korto recalls. “I cried until all the doctor people too started crying.”

The ETU’s nurses and doctors shaved Josephine’s tiny head to run an IV line to keep her hydrated. The odds of such a tiny baby surviving such an explosive virus were nearly non-existent, but Korto and the medical staff never gave up hope that Josephine would make it. On December 22, 2014, a miracle happened—Josephine tested negative for Ebola and was sent home.

Josephine is possibly the youngest known survivor of Ebola of the entire epidemic.

“The doctor people, they did well, really, but God came first,” says Korto. “I [would] just be crying, crying, saying she will not make it. But God [made] way.”

Josephine just celebrated her first birthday. Bright-eyed and chubby-cheeked, Josephine is unaware of the nearly fatal struggle she and her mother endured last year. But when Josephine is old enough, Korto plans to share the story with her.

“I will tell her when you were small, two months going on three, Ebola came,” Korto says. “It [caught] you and me. It was not easy. You and myself we almost died…I used to be sitting down crying, but still God made way [for] you to survive….I will tell her when they carry you and myself International Medical Corps did well for you and myself…God came first. They [came] second…God [was] the one that sent them to Liberia.”

Comfort H. Kollie, Suakoko, Liberia

Comfort H. Kollie was on her way to work at Phebe Hospital in Bong County when a man gave up a seat for her on the bus. A few days later, he died from Ebola. It did not take long before Comfort started experiencing symptoms. She withdrew from her family as her husband called an ambulance to bring her to International Medical Corps’ newly opened ETU just a few miles down the road from Phebe Hospital.

“When I got there first of all, I did not know I was going to survive,” Comfort says. “But I was still encouraged by people…My husband would say, ‘You will survive. You will not die.’ My children called me. My friends called me. My phone never rested.”

She never gave up hope and, on October 3, 2014, Comfort was declared Ebola-free. “I was very happy that day,” Comfort says, smiling broadly. “I was happy. I was happy. I took off going all around the ETU saying, ‘God, thank you. I have been saved from Ebola.’”

Comfort promised that if she recovered, she would come back to work in the ETU and help care for patients. On the 7th of November, she received a call from International Medical Corps, asking her to join their team, and Comfort spent the following months in the ETU, treating patients around the clock. “I had Ebola before,” Comfort says. “I used to be in there with light personal protective equipment (PPE). I slept in there so many nights with patients.”

When she looks back on her work at the ETU, is most proud of the work she did with small children suffering from Ebola. “A lot of children were saved,” she says, drilling off a list of names, each one recalling a memory, especially baby Josephine, who survived Ebola at only four months old, largely because of Comfort’s diligent care.

“She was very sick,” Comfort says. “Everybody was concerned and we used to stay with them, whole night, whole day. Then one day, Josephine got well and her and her mother went home….[The day] Josephine survived was a great day in the ETU…Everybody was happy, taking pictures from all angles. The mother dancing. Everybody dancing too. Josephine was very small to contract Ebola. Very small. And God bless, she and her mother survived.”

Today, Comfort is back at her job as an operating room technician at Phebe Hospital. Like many Ebola survivors, she struggles with poor eyesight and joint pain. She is now a patient in International Medical Corps’ program to assist survivors with common complications from the virus at Phebe Hospital.

Tragically, her husband, who called her every day while she was in the ETU to encourage her to keep fighting, died of heart failure in April. But she is still surrounded by her children and grandchildren and is proud of the work she did in the ETU. “We helped Liberia get to zero cases,” she says.

Bendu Howard, Gbarnga, Liberia

Bendu Howard lost her mother to Ebola on her seventeenth birthday—September 3, 2014. She died in an Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) that incinerated her corpse, denying Bendu and her family a chance to pay their final respects with a burial. “My mom was burned—I don’t know where she is,” Bendu says.

It was not long before Bendu and her older sister fell prey to the virus and they were admitted to International Medical Corps’ ETU down a rubber-tree-lined road in Bong County, roughly a 20-minute drive from their home. Her sister did not survive and was buried at the cemetery behind the ETU. Bendu pushed on and after three weeks tested negative for Ebola. “When the nurse said my blood was negative, I was so happy,” Bendu says.

However, when Bendu returned home, she was not allowed back into her house for fear she would make others sick. “My dad told me to go back to the ETU,” Bendu recalls. “My mother’s best friend, Esther, took me in. She fed me and bathed me.” In the following months, Bendu put all of her energy into working at International Medical Corps’ ETU as a survivor caregiver, feeding, bathing, and encouraging patients, especially small children, who were the same battle she went through. “Rather than sit and think about my mom, I thought it was better to go and help,” she explains.

The ETU now closed, Bendu is back home every day, where she is now caring for her three younger siblings. Their father, who now lives with their stepmother and other children in Monrovia, has not sent money to help the four of them make ends meet. School fees, groceries, rent, and other costs are all falling on Bendu, who at just 18-year-old is now looking for work to keep them afloat. “We are going to move to a cheaper house,” says Bendu. “We just cook dry rice and eat it—no soup.”

Despite her struggles, Bendu dreams of one day becoming a nurse like those who cared for her when she was in the ETU. Bendu also plans to share her story with her children. “When I have children, I will tell them my history of the ETU and how I got my virus from my mom,” Bendu says. “I want them to remember how to stay safe and keep my mother’s memory alive.”

Feliciah Kabba, Lungi, Sierra Leone

Four-year-old Feliciah Kabba is one of International Medical Corps’ youngest Ebola survivors. She, along with her grandmother and cousins, contracted Ebola at their home in Lungi, Sierra Leone in May 2015. Her mother, Mariatu Kamara, was in Freetown when she learned her daughter had fallen ill to the virus and was admitted to International Medical Corps’ Ebola Treatment Center (ETC) in Lunsar.

When Mariatu returned to Lungi, she was immediately put under quarantine, which prevented her from traveling to the ETC to see her daughter. “I felt crazy,” Mariatu says. “I came back and they quarantined me for 23 days.

Then, International Medical Corps psychosocial officers started to visit her at home to share videos on an iPad of Feliciah inside the ETC. “They gave me hope,” says Mariatu, who also recorded video messages for her daughter.

Feliciah, along with her two cousins, Mohammed Manga Bangura and Memunatu Bangura, defeated the virus and was discharged from the ETC on June 19, 2015. When she learned her daughter could come home, Mariatu was ecstatic. “I was so happy,” she says. “I put on the radio and danced.”

Today, Feliciah is a healthy four-year-old girl who likes to ride her bicycle around the family’s home in Lungi, not far from the country’s international airport. She rarely speaks about her time inside the ETC, but told her mother that the nurses gave her cookies and chicken and that somewhere at the facility they have movies of her, referring to the iPad messages they sent back and forth to one another.

Mariatu hopes that someday her daughter will go to school, an opportunity Mariatu never had, and become a lawyer. “I appreciate International Medical Corps for bringing my daughter back to me,” Mariatu says.

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