Family, friends remember Columbia man who died in Liberia as 'full of life'

To his family, Nathaniel Dennis' life began as a wonder. 

Born premature, Dennis survived infancy thanks to a shunt placed in his brain by Ben Carson, the world-famous Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon. 

"I remember how tiny he was when his parents brought him home from the hospital," his cousin, Vannette Tolbert, said. "We called him our Miracle Baby." 

The Miracle Baby grew up to be a young man who, those who knew him say, loved music, pickup sports and was deeply devoted to his family and friends. 

But family members said that when Dennis, 24, suffered a seizure in Liberia two weeks ago, he did not have access to the medical resources that might have saved his life, and that he needed an immediate visit from a neurosurgeon and a ventilator to keep him breathing. 

Instead, he was quarantined for three days due to ebola fears. He died July 30. 

Dennis' family had hoped to bring him to Ghana, where hospitals are better equipped to treat patients, but Ghanaian officials would not allow Dennis into the country, fearing he might bring the ebola virus with him, family members said. 

His sister, Natasha Dennis, 27, said that Nathaniel had tested negative for ebola three times.

"It’s just one of those things that the hysteria got everyone so afraid that no one was willing to help us," she said. 

Dennis remembered Nathaniel as the "baby brother" of the family, who was interested in a career in radio. He grew up in Columbia and graduated from Howard High School in 2007. He was currently a student at Howard Community College

Nathaniel, Natasha and their brother Norwood Dennis, 25, had traveled to Monrovia, the Liberian capital, in late May to visit their mother, who works as an educator there.

By the end of their multiweek trip, Nathaniel Dennis had found a job at a local radio station and decided to extend his stay, she said. 

"He just got so busy" working and attending events, she recalled. "It was crazy how he fit into the community so quickly." 

Nathaniel Dennis, who family and friends affectionately called "Nat," was "enthusiastic and vibrant and full of life," his cousin Catherine Clarke recalled. 

Clarke, 24, of Columbia, grew up just a few blocks from Nathaniel and considered him a brother.

"We were best friends; inseparable," she said. "He was one of the biggest protectors in my life. He would never let anything happen to me."

The two would spend summer days at the Locust Park swimming pool and "he slept at my house every night," she said. 

In addition to music, Dennis was a Ravens fan and enjoyed playing pickup basketball and football games with neighborhood friends, according to Clarke. 

Above all else, she said, he valued family. A tattoo on his chest read "FOE" for "Family Over Everything." 

Ashleigh Elmer, 22, of Elkridge, said she had met Dennis through Clarke and called him "friendly," "good-spirited" and "very humble." 

Though she and Dennis weren't particularly close, she said, he made it a point to check in on her every so often. 

That was typical Nat, said Tolbert, his cousin. 

He "grew up to be a very sweet, respectful, and caring young man," she said. "He would text or send Facebook messages every so often just to say, 'hi,' and to see how I was doing.  He was a God-fearing young man who frequented his church and took every opportunity to spread positive messages to everyone with whom he came in contact."

Natasha Dennis said the family's next goal is to bring her brother's body home to the United States. They've set up a GoFundMe account to help with medical costs; as of Monday evening, friends and strangers had donated more than $13,000. 

She plans to continue to advocate for improving medical care in the west African nation, which she called "a great, great place" weakened by two civil wars between 1989 and 2005. 

"We fought hard and he fought really hard, but he couldn’t even get the care he needed," she said of her brother. And, she added, "he's not the only person being affected. At least we had the resources to have a fighting prayer."

Clarke said the irony of Dennis' death is that he was "fearless."

"To see someone with such a big heart lose his life, for him to pass because of ebola hysteria – it’s just crazy that that would happen, because he had no fear," she said.

Donations can be made to the family's GoFundMe account at 

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