Nightmare Scenario

07.30.14

‘He Could Have Brought Ebola Here’: Minnesota Widow on Her Husband

Patrick Sawyer was supposed to be at his kids’ birthday party in a few weeks—but he died of the virus before he could board a flight to Minneapolis. His wife on the epidemic’s toll.

Nigeria felt a chill from the hot zone when a 40-year-old man collapsed and died from the dread Ebola virus after flying there from Liberia.

That hot zone chill now reaches America, with word that the same man was scheduled to fly to Minneapolis in time for an August 16 party celebrating the birthdays of two of his three young daughters.

Patrick Sawyer was a naturalized U.S. citizen who worked for the Finance Ministry of his native Liberia and returned home to his wife and children in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, whenever he could. He almost certainly would have boarded that flight to Minneapolis had he remained at least outwardly healthy enough not to exhibit symptoms.

One nightmare scenario would have been for him to go ahead with the birthday party for his daughters even though he was feeling a little flu-ish and maybe dish out cake and ice cream to his little girls before anybody imagined he might be carrying the deadly virus from distant West Africa.

“He could have brought Ebola here,” his wife, Decontee Sawyer, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.

Patrick had been tending to a sick sister named Princess in Liberia and had not learned the exact nature of her illness until after she died.

“He knew she was sick and he kept caring for her, but he didn’t know it was Ebola,” Decontee said. “It could have been malaria.”

He was still grieving when he texted his wife on July 18, but he gave no indication that he was feeling ill. Decontee would wonder if witnessing his sister’s terrible death had left him unable to accept that he could suffer the same fate as a result of trying to aid her.

“I think he might have been in a state of denial,” Decontee suggested.

Patrick fell manifestly ill on July 20 during the 6-hour, 40-minute journey via two flights on ASKY Airlines, from Monrovia to Lomé in Togo and on to Lagos, where he was scheduled to attend an economic development conference. He collapsed at the Lagos airport and was placed in isolation at First Consultants Hospital in Obalende, a high-density neighborhood in the teeming city.

“We all have to work together to stop Ebola from continuing to kill people,” Decontee said. “And to keep it from coming across the ocean.”

After Patrick’s death on July 25, the hospital was evacuated and quarantined for a week to allow decontamination. The 44 people with whom he was known to have had contact at the hospital—38 health-care workers and six lab techs—either were isolated or monitored, depending on the exposure. Also being monitored are 15 people he encountered at the airport, reportedly including the Nigerian ambassador to Liberia.

Nigerian officials were unable to check who might have been exposed on the two ASKY flights, as the airline inexplicably had failed to provide passenger lists. ASKY did suspend all service to Liberia and to Sierra Leone, which also has reported numerous Ebola cases.

In Minnesota, Decontee had no idea anything was amiss until she got a phone call on Friday informing her that her husband was dead.

“Just out of nowhere, out of the blue,” she said. “I never thought Ebola would break down my front door, and that’s what it did.”

She was faced with trying to explain to 5-year-old Eve and 4-year-old Mia why their father would not be at the party to mark the birthdays they both celebrate in August.

“They can barely understand what’s going on,” Decontee said. “I told the girls he’s looking down at them, they can talk to him now anytime they want.”

The youngest, Bella, had just turned 1 in March and likely will have no memory of her father. The thought of what all three girls had lost and what so many other children stand to lose because of this virus filled Decontee with an urgency to do something to fight it.

“I feel like Ebola has declared war on me, and I’m ready to do it right back,” she said. “You can only cry so much, and then you have to do something. Because while you’re crying, people are dying still. “

She consulted with friends on Facebook and formed Concerned Liberians Against Ebola. A posting on the page read: “One way you could help is to call your relatives, friends, and anyone you know in Liberia to take this disease seriously, quarantine anyone suspected of the disease, and stock up on medicines to treat simple malaria attacks to clear up any confusion.”

But Decontee wanted to do more. She and like-minded friends decided that any funds or supplies they could raise should go to two organizations whose medical teams are bravely taking on Ebola in the hot zone, Samaritan’s Purse and Global Health Ministry.

“Risking their lives,” Decontee said of the two eminently worthy outfits. “They want to help so we want to help them do the work.”

Samaritan’s Purse had established the Ebola treatment center where an American physician, Dr. Kent Brantly, serves as medical director. Brantly came to Liberia with his wife and two children as a medical missionary seeking to do nothing more dangerous than family medicine at the Eternal Love Winning Africa Hospital in Monrovia. He and his ELWA colleagues then began hearing talk in mid-March of an Ebola outbreak more than 100 miles away in Lofa. His hospital established an isolation unit in the facility’s chapel.

“And prayed it would not be needed,” reports an ELWA blog. “At first it seemed that the prayers had been answered. The outbreak subsided experienced a short lull, and for a time there were no new confirmed cases in Liberia.”

But at the end of May, the epidemic flared, and this time it spread to Monrovia. ELWA got its first case on June 11, and more soon followed. The hospital turned to Brantly, who is meticulously cautious and profoundly compassionate.

“As the epidemic began to unfold, Kent found himself in a very difficult circumstance,” Dr. Donald McCray, a longtime mentor and friend, later said during a press conference at the John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, where Brantly completed his residency last year. “He was asked to serve as the medical director of the isolation unit for Ebola.”

Brantly accepted. One small mercy was that his family returned to Texas on a pre-scheduled visit, sparing him from having to worry about infecting them.

He and his team remained uncommonly careful, spending at least a half-hour suiting up before venturing into the Ebola isolation ward. Every centimeter of skin was covered. Gloves were doubled and taped to sleeves. But the hands were skilled. And Brantly’s deep-blue eyes were no less kind and caring behind plastic goggles. He would spend at least a half-hour being decontaminated afterward.

Elsewhere in Liberia, entire hospitals emptied out, patients, doctors, and nurses, all fleeing in fear of Ebola. The team at Brantly’s facility kept at it day after day, often four hours at a time in the stultifying full-body suits before a break, followed by another four hours of watching the disease do its unimaginable worst despite all their best efforts.

“Terrified,” Brantly said of himself to McRay.

No images from combat zones depict greater courage than do photographs of Brantly and his team in the hot zone, tending a patient in the midst of horrific suffering that they themselves were risking. Brantly is a man of deep faith, and he was proving himself to be a Christian such as Christ would cherish, someone practicing that greatest love. Any religion that values life would embrace this doctor’s scripture in action, his gospel of goodness.

Last week, Brantly began to feel ill. And, like Patrick Sawyer’s sister, he thought at first that he might be coming down with malaria.

“His symptoms developed on Wednesday, with fever, headache, abdominal pain...and have progressed,” McCray told the press conference in Texas on Monday.

Brantly tested positive for Ebola, as did another American, Nancy Writebol, who had been working with the decontamination crew. He became a patient along with Writebol in the ward he had been supervising. His prognosis was described as “grave.”

“I’m praying fervently that God will help me survive this disease,” Brantly said in an email to McRay on Monday. “Please continue to pray along with me and pray for my friend Nancy who is also very sick, and for the doctors who are taking care of us. Thank you all so much. Peace, Kent.”

How Brantly and Writebol became infected remains a mystery. There is one theory that they were both exposed by a Liberian worker in the contamination crew who fell ill. Another theory is that Brantly was exposed somewhere outside the hospital.

The many people who admire Brantly note that the fatality rate for Ebola drops from 90 percent to about 60 percent if it is caught early, as was apparently the case with the good doctor.

Even so, that is less than an even chance, at best.

From Minnesota, Decontee Sawyer calls on all decent souls to support the brave medical teams taking on the virus that is only a plane ride away from anywhere.

“We all have to work together to stop Ebola from continuing to kill people,” Sawyer said. “And to keep it from coming across the ocean.”

She will be holding a memorial for her husband in September.

And there will be an event before then, one on August 16 that she will not let Ebola stop.

“We’re going to have that birthday party,” she said.