Armed with plastic bags and desperation, a young woman nursed her family back to health.
Doctors were horrified. In Liberia, Fatu Kekula was trying to care for her family, sick with Ebola, at home using nothing more than plastic trash bags, a raincoat bought in the market, boots, a surgical mask and gloves.
They called, urging her to be sensible.
“Doctors called and told me to leave them right alone and not go anywhere near them,” the 22-year-old nursing student said. “I couldn’t. They’re my only family.
“When your family get ill, you know that the virus is deadly. But your family is your family.”
Liberia has suffered a severe shortage of space at treatment centres, with many people turned away, forced to go home, dying terrible deaths and infecting family members who try to help them.
Kekula’s story is testament to the grief and confusion family members feel when urged by authorities and health workers not to touch sick family members. Most go into denial and treat them anyway, without taking precautions.
In August, Kekula’s father, Moses, mother, Victoria, sister Vivienne and a young cousin, Alfred Wennie, 14, who had been taken in by the Kekulas as a foster child, all fell desperately ill with Ebola. Every day, Kekula said, she called for an ambulance and begged for help. For more than two weeks, none came.
“No one came near me. No one!” she said.
Kekula was at a relative’s home in Grand Bassa County when her father, a 52-year-old administrator at a clinic, got sick on July 29. About a week earlier, he had been diagnosed with typhoid and given a bed that had just been vacated by an Ebola patient in the clinic where he worked.
His wife sent her four youngest foster children away and did her best to care for him, but when he weakened dramatically, with vomiting and diarrhea, she called Kekula home on Aug 3.
Kekula and her sister Vivienne took Moses to Monrovia, the capital, by taxi, 90 minutes on punishing roads, but no Ebola treatment unit could take him. On the ride back, Kekula made her plan.
“Since I know small, small medicine, I said, ‘God, with my faith I’m going to get my father home, and he’ll survive’.”
She set up a makeshift isolation centre in an unfinished room outside the house. She bought raincoats, rain boots, chlorine and other supplies. Then she went to work.
When she entered her father’s treatment room she put on socks, plastic bags donned like waders, rain boots, four sets of gloves, a coat, a mask and a plastic bag over her hair. Carefully, she put in an intravenous drip. She poured liquids down his throat, drop by drop.
She gave him blood pressure medicine, antibiotics, analgesics for his fever and headache. She even gave him an antiretroviral medicine normally used to save the lives of AIDS patients.
“He was restless,” Kekula said. “I did his blood pressure and it was very low, and I was afraid that he might die.”
Moses Kekula was struggling to breathe, with a shattering headache, aches all over his body.
“I was almost like giving up. I kept praying to survive,” he recalled.
A week later, just as he was beginning to show signs of improvement, his wife became sick. Then the disease struck Vivienne and Alfred, the cousin, who’d been sent to live with them by his father, a farmer.
Around the clock, one or the other of them would be weakly calling Kekula for help. She dozed 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there.
“It was a bit difficult for me to sleep because all the time they would call me, maybe two of them would call me at the same time. Every time I would go into a dangerous room, I would dress up,” she said.
She went through four boxes of surgical gloves and bags of raincoats. When she took off the clothing, she had to shrug it off carefully to avoid touching the exterior. She sprayed copiously with chlorinated water. She carefully burned all the waste.
She swiftly burned through the US$600 (RM1,950) in her bank account.
“My approach was just to treat them based on their symptoms,” she said. “I never felt tired. I was fighting for my family and their lives.”
On the 18th day, as Alfred’s condition quickly declined, an ambulance arrived. Kekula watched it depart with her family members for Monrovia, fear gripping her heart. Would she see them again?
“I was worried,” she said. “They had the symptoms of the virus, and the virus had no cure.”
She prayed that their Ebola tests would be negative. All would turn out positive.
Outside John F. Kennedy Medical Center, Alfred collapsed, convulsing.
“He said, ‘Auntie, I want to lie down’,” Victoria Kekula recalled. No beds were available, so Moses, Victoria, Vivienne and Alfred were given mattresses lined up together on the floor. Alfred’s skin became hot; he started bleeding from his mouth, convulsing again.
When Victoria awoke the next morning at five, she saw Alfred just a yard away on the next mattress, drenched with blood.
“I was afraid to touch him,” she said. “Then I saw he wasn’t breathing.
“I cried. I said, ‘It’s a shame on me, because I took somebody’s child, a relative’s child, and he died in my hands’.”
Victoria’s health declined sharply after that, but she would survive.
Since helping her family, Fatu Kekula wants to spread hope to other desperate families. She has addressed workshops organised by the Health Ministry, teaching people how to use plastic bags to protect themselves when there’s nothing else.
“I’m going to teach them the things I’ve already done, because I treated four people, and only one died,” she said. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service