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In Liberia, Ebola survivors care for orphans of the disease

In Liberia, Ebola survivors care for orphans of the disease
Konah Kupee, who survived Ebola but lost her husband, daughter and other family members to the disease, is determined to help children orphaned by the virus in Liberia. (Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles Times)

Each has a survival story, one that began with a gesture of love and care and led to hell and back.

Eight Liberian survivors of Ebola, they are now caring for children whose parents died of the virus. Their workplace is a temporary government-run orphan refuge in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

Formerly a juvenile corrections center, the building has freshly painted pink walls and barred windows. A large pot of sticky pink paint rests by the front door, looking like melted raspberry ice cream.

The survivors make the beds in three dormitory rooms, lay fresh vinyl flooring and repair windows. Then they sit and wait for the children.

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There's a stir of anticipation as someone takes a phone call saying 10 orphans will arrive that evening. Many such children are rejected by families and communities. Some saw their mothers die. Other lost their entire families.

Some are Ebola survivors, free of the virus. Others could still be sickened by the disease that killed their parents. But they cannot infect the survivors caring for them, who now have immunity.

One survivor, Decontee Davis, says she wants these children to be loved again. Another survivor, Konah Kupee, says she doesn't want them to be shunned, as she was, when she went home.

They're among the first members of the small survivors association that sprang up recently in Monrovia. Some have donated blood, which contains antibodies that can help new victims. Some have gone to work in Ebola treatment units, knowing they can't be infected a second time with the Ebola strain ravaging their country. Others are trying to educate people to stop stigmatizing survivors such as themselves.

The founder of the group, physician's assistant Korlia Bonarwolo, 25, who contracted Ebola while caring for a nurse with the disease, is now training health workers.

"I'm telling them to make sure patients get their intravenous drips on time, to make sure they get their food on time, to help patients bathe," he said. "I'm telling them how you talk to them and encourage them that they can survive. It's very important because it gives you courage and it gives you hope."

Waiting for the orphans to arrive at the refuge, the survivors snack on grilled plantain sold on the street. They pile onto soft chairs and couches, joking and laughing. They listen to one another's stories of love, fear and betrayal.

Terror of the deadly disease has sent some people into denial, they say. Others took risks knowingly, impelled by strong cultural traditions, respect for the sick or even anxiety at causing offense by failing to help. Government messages to not touch people with Ebola denied the bond of family ties and human nature, especially when those seeking treatment were being turned away from Ebola treatment units and hospitals for lack of beds.

Kupee, 37, begged her husband, Jeremiah, to not go to the bedside of a dying uncle.

"I said, 'Please don't go and bring problems to me.' I said, 'This is not the time to go and visit a sick person,'" she recalled. Her husband promised not to enter his uncle's room and, later, when he became sick himself, refused to admit that he had gone to the latter's bedside.

As her husband lay dying, refusing to go to the hospital for treatment, she found a photo on his cellphone that proved he'd gone to see his uncle.

"He couldn't tell me the truth. He was not fair on me. I thought it was a different sickness," Kupee said.

"I checked his phone. I saw his uncle's picture in the phone. I realized he must have gone inside that house. I said, 'Oh, I'm finished. I was taking care of him.'"

Nine people died in the uncle's house. And five of Jeremiah Kupee's children and grandchildren also died. Two days after he succumbed, his wife's temperature soared and her heart started beating very fast.

"I said, 'I will not stay here and die like my husband died,'" said Kupee, who went to an Ebola treatment unit.

She recovered and returned to her neighborhood Sept. 3. "I expected everyone to be rejoicing and coming to welcome me. People were turning away from me. Everyone was running away."

Those weren't there included her 19-year-old pregnant daughter, Grace.

Grace died at home of Ebola five days earlier, unable to enter a hospital for treatment because no more beds were available.

While she was in the Ebola unit, Kupee recovered enough to look after a 5-year-old girl named Esther.

"I gave her all my love and told her some fun stories, just fun stories for her to laugh. I used to bathe her. I played with her. I'd say, 'Clap for me, and she'd clap."

Kupee softly sings the song she used to sing to Esther: "A rabbit has ears, a lion has a tail...."

When she was discharged, Kupee felt terrible leaving Esther behind. She prayed someone would watch out for the girl. But three days later, Esther was dead.

Unlike many diseases that beset this lush West African coastal country, Ebola wipes out families and often leaves survivors jobless and homeless. Kupee was evicted by her landlord. Now living with her sister, she's determined to help Ebola orphans.

"We are the victims. We are the best people to take care of the children," she said firmly.

Food trader Kamah Kromah, 27, lost her 10-year-old son, Foday. "My son died in my hands. He was like a child at my breast," said Kromah, another survivor working at the orphan center. "That's how I held him.

"I was talking to him, telling him to eat. I would get angry too. I was telling him to get strong. Before he died, he said, 'Oh Ma, I will die.' I started shedding tears, saying, 'You will not die.'"

After the deaths of her son and five others in her immediate family, Kromah was treated for Ebola. While in the treatment unit, Kromah, like Kupee, cared for a sick orphan girl, who eventually recovered. After leaving the hospital, Kromah adopted a 4-year-old boy named Solomon, who was orphaned by Ebola.

"Some of my friends refused, but you know, that's human being business so I can't say no," Kromah said.

Last month, Kromah went to collect her goods from a warehouse to support Solomon and her two surviving children: Augustina, 1, and Sheila, 2. But everything had been stolen while she was in the hospital fighting for her life.

Unable to afford to keep Solomon, she has sent him to live with her brother.

Like other survivors at the orphan refuge, Helene Morris, 31, watched her son, Nehemiah, 9, die. Eight people in her family are gone, including her parents and husband.

Grieving and sick in an Ebola treatment unit, she saw a mother, father and grandmother die, leaving behind a helpless 9-month-old baby named Raphael.

"My heart ran to my people that left me," she said, referring to her dead son and family. She bathed, dressed and fed the infant and made sure he received medical treatment. She cuddled him, carried him on her back and gave him her heart.

When he got better, relatives came to take him home. Morris couldn't stop thinking of him.

"I wanted to take Raphael with me. I was liking him and he was used to me now. I was crying when they took him away. I used to wake up thinking about him. The way they took him made me feel bad."

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Decontee Davis, 23, a college student, says she came so close to death that she wants to celebrate her survival by helping others. She became ill when she cleaned up the vomit of her fiance's aunt, Olive Hart. She did so because it seemed the right thing to do.

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Her mother shouted at her that afternoon, when she joked about what seemed the remote risk of getting Ebola. Soon after, she lay desperately ill and terrified in an Ebola unit, the body of a friend at her feet and another corpse by her side.

She heard the voice of a newly admitted patient, yelling with severe stomach pain. "He was crying, 'I'm not going to make it!'" She knew the voice well: It was her fiance, Peter T. Port. He died that night without seeing her.

After she recovered, she donated blood to another Ebola patient, who survived. She wanted to donate a second time, but doctors advised her to wait a while.

"If my blood levels permit me, I'm willing to give blood again," said Davis, whose 5-year-old son also survived the virus. Now, she's opening her heart to more children.

"If people stigmatize them, I'm here to love them," Davis said. "They'll be like my own children. I want to love them like they're my own blood."

Late Monday, three frightened children arrived at the refuge, including a 5-year-old girl, Kubo. Fifteen were to arrive in the first weeks of operation.

On Tuesday, Kubo had a temperature. By Wednesday, she was violently ill, vomiting. The survivors knew in their hearts it was Ebola.

That night they watched in sorrow as an ambulance nosed out the front gate, taking the girl away.

She was taken to an Ebola treatment unit — and would never come back. Days later, she died of Ebola.

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