My friend and I walked through the cold streets of Amsterdam, wandering aimlessly, enjoying the smell of trees and grass and water and stone, rather than dust and dirt and heat and garbage. We passed a wine bar, and she stopped and peered through the window, reading the labels on the bottles.
“That’s my dream job,” she said. “Spend all day talking about wine, comparing wine, selling wine, having tasting parties.”
“Don’t forget drinking the product,” I said.
“Hell yes,” she agreed, and we grinned at each other and walked on.
In companionable silence, she pondered a life revolving around wine. I let my mind wander to my own version of the wine bar job, the one where I work in a small-town restaurant in the mountains, open for breakfast at 5 am, pancakes and eggs and bacon and hashbrowns and coffee strong enough to strip paint from your pickup. A crowd of regulars at the counter, music from the 60s and the 70s on tinny speakers in the ceiling. Out of work by 2pm and time enough to go run the sloping south-face trails until sunset.
A job where the most important thing is getting the eggs done right.
And the worst thing you might see is a broken plate.
– – –
Three weeks earlier, just before yet another staff meeting, my phone rang. I stepped into a quieter area of the compound to answer it, stepped away from the undertones of fear and grief and anger that had suddenly and irrevocably permeated our lives. One of us was sick. They were in Kerrytown. The evac plane was en route. In a moment, everything had changed, and nothing would ever be the same.
I looked at the number on the little phone’s screen. It was a W.H.O. team member from the north, the tiny border district where I’d been spending all of my time for the past month. I’d slowly started to resent the need to be there, the hour-long daily drive, the constant repairs and upgrades, the endless problems with the lab staff, the intransigent district officer who elevated public patronization to an art form at every evening meeting.
Little did I know then that my isolation in the north would save me from the paranoia and irrationality looming on the horizon, waiting to strike more than half of my co-workers on the ground.
I answered the call. “Hello, Maria.”
“Hi, Martha. We have a situation.”
– – –
When the young man died, leaving behind his wife and their seven children, the system worked as it should. The swab team came and took a swab sample from his mouth, and then the corpse team came and safely buried him in the public cemetery.
When his swab came back positive for Ebola, a surveillance officer, a contact tracer, and a decontamination team made their way out to quarantine the house and to talk to his widow. Furious and terrified after being told her husband died of Ebola, she retreated back into her home and refused to come out. She hid her children inside where no one could see them.
Over the next three days, the team from the district returned again and again, desperate to see the children, to see if any of them were sick. They brought the widow gifts of food and fresh water. Suspicious that they were poisoned – a common belief in rural areas where Ebola was rampant – she refused to eat them, and mice overran the bag of rice before the day was out.
A family liaison officer came to the home, and gently tried to convince her that they were there to help her, to help her family. She lashed out at them.
“Help? You’re here to help?? You come to my village, to my neighbors home. You take their children away, you tell us they have Ebola. Then you burn everything she has, her bed, her clothes, her only pair of shoes! You spray poison in her house! You put armed soldiers outside her door! And then you come back and tell us her children are dead, already in the ground?”
She sneered at the team. “You take our children and destroy everything we have. You are not here to help.”
And she closed the door.
– – –
On the fourth day, she surprised the team and met them the yard. She quietly brought the children out of the house, one by one, and her abrupt change in demeanor suddenly made sense. Two of the younger children were obviously ill, pale and lethargic, trembling with fever.
“Please, let us take them,” begged the officer. “They need to be at the holding center; the doctors and nurses can care for them there.”
She refused. “You cannot take my children. They need me.”
“You can come with them,” they offered. Although official protocols dictated that we separate the well from the ill, in reality we never forcibly separated a parent and child. If an adult chose to risk exposing themselves to Ebola for the sake of their child, we respected their choice.
“And what of the others?” She waved a hand over her other five children. “Who will care for them? We have no one left.” She shook her head. “No. We will stay together.”
– – –
Maria sighed into the phone. “So that’s the situation. She won’t leave the kids, and honestly, I don’t blame her. But those two little ones need medical care. So what do we do? Can the holding center take all eight of them together? They’ve all obviously been exposed –”
“Yes,” I said again quietly. “If she won’t leave them, but she’ll agree to bring everybody in, bring them all in. If it’s the only way for us to get our hands on the sick ones, let’s do it.”
I hung up, and called the doctor at the holding center. “Be ready,” I said.
“I always am,” he said cheerfully.
– – –
It took two more days to convince her to bring her children to the holding center.
– – –
The doctor and his team were indeed ready by the time all eight of them arrived. The family was kept together in their own ward, and the lab techs were standing by to draw the bloodwork. The tubes of blood were decontaminated, packaged, decontaminated again, and placed into an ambulance that raced to the lab in our home district.
I was startled to see a batch of lab results come through via e-mail late that night, at nearly 9:30pm. All labs were usually resulted by 7pm. Stranger still was the subject line of the e-mail:
– – IMPORTANT. Batch 9 Results from 16-March 2015. – –
Why was this batch marked ‘important?’ I wondered, as I clicked open the spreadsheet.
And then I saw them.
Lab 4864, 9 years, female, POSITIVE.
Lab 4865, 5 years, male, POSITIVE.
Lab 4866, 3 years, female, POSITIVE.
Lab 4867, 7 years, male, POSITIVE.
Lab 4868, 11 years, male, POSITIVE.
Lab 4869, 13 years, female, POSITIVE.
Lab 4870, 31 years, female, POSITIVE.
The widow, and all but one of her children, were sick. More than five days had been wasted trying to convince them to seek treatment. They were nearly a week into their disease course, too far beyond the time when we could usually ‘catch’ people and give them a fighting chance.
I knew that most of them would die.
For the first time in my life I could see the future, and it was bleak and hideous.
– – –
The 17th of March was my final full day of work. I arrived at the holding center mid-morning and stepped from my car to see an ambulance backed up to the red zone. I walked slowly to the fence, and watched as she and her family were loaded into the ambulance that would take them to the ETU.
The widow carried one of her smaller children. The school-age children walked in a line behind her, ducklings following their mother, eyes wide and curious at their bizarre surroundings. One of the nurses held the hand of a child as they walked. Another nurse, encapsulated in her PPE, carried the youngest, a tiny 3-year-old, no bigger than a child half her age in any developed country.
One by one they stepped up into the back of the ambulance. They sat tucked in close to one another, arms and legs and shoulders touching, staring out the back doors into the sunlight.
And then the nurse closed the doors, and the sprayer sprayed the back of the ambulance with chlorine, and it drove away.
– – –
They were the last Ebola patients I saw in Sierra Leone.
– – –
Ten days later, I got confirmation of the news I knew was coming. Curled into a hotel bed on a rainy morning in Amsterdam, I opened an e-mail from the doctor at the holding center, and learned that the widow and five of her seven children were dead.
– – –
It is easy enough for me to picture what it must have been like inside the ETU. It is much too easy for me to create their story in my own head, what they saw and smelled and felt and heard as their family died around them. And so I spent much of the last four weeks actively trying not to think about them.
My role in their lives was almost entirely superficial; they never knew I existed, I never cared for them directly. But they stayed with me. I thought of them in Belgium, in the Netherlands, in Switzerland. I thought of them while chatting with the CDC in a little curtained area in O’Hare; I thought of them on the drive home from SeaTac.
The only surviving members of that family are two children under the age of six. They will never clearly remember their mother, their father, or their siblings. If they are lucky, they will have extended family that survived the epidemic, someone who can tell them the story of how fiercely their mother loved them, even as her fear – borne from love – fatally delayed their treatment.
So I suppose they stay with me, in part, so that I can remember. So that someone can remember. So that someone can bear witness to their existence, before all memory of this time fades into shades of beige, then gray, then white, and is gone.