- An Insider’s Horrifying Eyewitness Account of What Women and Children Have To Contend With Inside This Ebola Holding Center
By Samuka V. Konneh
Over six months after the first few deaths were reported in Liberia as a result of the deadly Ebola virus disease, the country’s problems in the fight continue to shift in sharp dimensions. The earliest challenge had been huge citizens’ denial that culminated in evident recalcitrance towards government’s regulation on prevention, hence more deaths.
One another hand, especially when the death toll began to increase, the healthcare system collapsed in its totality – of course confirmed by government. When few hospitals reassured themselves to open, there came the problem of lack of willing health workers and drugs to treat even ordinary illnesses, lack of sufficient ambulances and citizens’ opposition to government’s involvement of the military.
Now that some of these challenges are beginning to subside due to the glaring deadly realities of the disease and the intervention of the international community, Liberia’s worries are far from over as expert predictions project an exponential increase in the number of cases.
In between, the best place for a sick person is a holding center, if not a treatment center. Not only does it give hope to the sick, it prevents others from contracting the virus of he or she remains in the community.
Redemption is the biggest holding center in Montserrado, a county of over one million people. But the stories from within this facility portray the hospital in a different way. One person has described it as, for lack of a moderate name, a modern day concentration camp.
Fanta Jabateh, 48, escaped from this holding center over two weeks ago on Sunday, September 21, 2014. Her story sums up generally what patients undergo at Redemption Hospital and in particular what women and children have to contend with before either their death or recuperation.
Fanta is sitting in the comfort of a partially scary family at their Gardnersville residence in Monrovia. Fanta explains the horrors she underwent before her escape. "I spent five days in the hospital. My stomach ran for these five days and no one attended to me," she told me in her native Mandingo language.
She continued: "I called my children several times outside to inform the world about my condition. They tried their best but no one helped. I became helpless and thought that death was even better than my present condition. I called nurses' attention but no one cared. I saw death in that hospital but it refused to take my life. I wished it had taken my life then. All the time I was at the hospital, they never fed me nor allowed my family to bring me food."
Fanta's family has suffered more than nine deaths to the Ebola virus. Her crutch-carrying husband sits in frustration as Fanta narrates her ordeal at Redemption. "I am happy that we are able to see her alive. We heard rumors that she was already dead. Even though she was not supposed to escape, we are glad to see her," he said, struggling to hold back his tears in the midst of his family. But his body language no doubt explained exactly what was going on inside this old man.
Fanta says she escaped along with more than twenty people who suffered similar neglect. "I am not alone. There were more than 20 people that ran away from that hospital because of no care. I don't know where they went." Finding their whereabouts appears to be more difficult than even testing their Ebola status.
For all time Fanta spent at the hospital, she was never tested, never treated. Unaware of her Ebola status, Fanta is at home. When she escaped, she went at the Duala Market to board a taxi cab. She couldn't get one. Then her eighteen years old son, Sekou Jabateh, aided her get a motorbike that conveyed them home; risking all three onboard and people in the market.
Before she escaped, there were rumors that people who are not nurses and health workers were forcing their way into the hospital to cater to their 'detained' family members. The rumors were true and Sekou took advantage of it. He found his way through the nonchalant health workers, wore protective equipment (PPE) and went to his mother; already suspected of Ebola.
"Yes it's true. I saw men moving in and get their people out. I saw some of them wearing PPEs. When I asked them to help me get my mother, one of them said 'ain't you man?' Go and get your mother. I know I am a man; so I went in, I wear (wore) PPE and went to see my mother," Sekou told me as his siblings looked on.
How could people who don't work at the hospital have access to it and even wear PPE? I asked him. His response was no different from what disappointed people in Liberia would say. "Those who work there are not motivated. They are afraid of their own lives. They are afraid to come closer to sick people. So, they just sat there and we do (did) our thing."
I needed to confirm Sekou's story of infiltrating an already risky territory. A nurse on one of the few ambulances that conveyed sick people at the hospital that very day confirmed the story.
"When we carried people in the hospital, one of them was too weak. So, we used the stretcher to take her inside. When we got in, someone recognized me and called my name. I turned around and it was Sekou. He said, 'big brother, it's me, Sekou. Am doing my thing here!' And I asked, but how come you got in here. Why (are) you in PPE? He explained his story to me. It's scary how things are going on around here," the nurse, preferring anonymity, told me.
Not capacitated to care for patients is one thing, but allowing people who are not health workers infiltrate the system is even more worrisome as these people, without the proper knowledge of prevention, could infect themselves and spread the virus in the communities they come from. Officials at the hospital would not make any official comment. Health Ministry official Tolbert Nyensuah who is also topflight head on the National Taskforce on Ebola could not be reached over the weekend.
To test the possibility of infiltrating the hospital even when you are not a nurse, I went to the hospital and approached people assigned at the warehouse. Two ambulances had just arrived with sick people; so I guessed my timing was perfect. I would just go in there pretending to be one of the ambulance attendants. I crossed the first few doors but realized how panicking I was. Why? A pick-up filled with dead bodies was leaving the hospital to give way to newly brought-in sick people. Sources say the dead bodies were more than 48. This cannot be independently verified. So, I rescinded my brave-heart decision and drove back home in despair.
Several family members of other patients taken to the Redemption hospital have corroborated Fanta's story.
A daughter of one of the escapees who later passed away narrated even horrifying accounts. “My mother was kept there for more than ten days. They wanted her to spend 21 days there under observation. All during these days, the hospital never gave her food or drugs. I had to buy biscuits and bread for my mother.
“Can you imagine my mother was undergoing women’s monthly cycle? If you don’t care for women, how do you know their special needs? My mother told me she received (menstruation) for more than a week but had nothing to protect herself with. No cortex, nothing. The rapper she wore was already messy. Don’t they know that some of the people they are holding in there are women? We all know what that means. How could they do this to our people? They wanted us to bring our sick people to the hospital, we have brought them. Yet, they are not able to take care of them. I don’t see the reason they taking our sick people to that killing ground. I don’t see the difference,” Marie Cyphus, a sociology student at the University of Liberia said in tears.
Standing just outside the Redemption Hospital, Marie has just successfully helped her mother escape the holding facility but she would not say where her mother was at. She also explained how she saw a child, about a year old, die in the eyes of nurses.
“They said she and her mother were brought together. She was still suckling breast. Since her mother was suspected of Ebola and the baby was suckling, they suspected her too. They say Ebola is spread through fluids like breast milk. I heard the mother die few days ago. The child remained there and no one could take care of her. I saw the baby’s life going out of her. I could not help. My worry was my mother,” Marie said in a rush as she boarded a taxi cab heading for Broad Street, central Monrovia.