Ester's parents died in Liberia's Ebola outbreak.
Ester's parents died in Liberia's Ebola outbreak. (M. Holden Warren)

Six years ago, you meet a woman at Red Emma's.  She passes through Baltimore a few times after, always doing medical studies and going on about African street kids. There is a loose connection maintained over social media. Then she tells you she is selling her eggs to save the world. You stop what you are doing. You follow her on that mission around the states on couches as she pumps herself full of hormones. You follow her to Liberia. You help her where you can. You see what she is fighting for. You are happy to use your Peace Corps training to make her mission tighter. You understand why she must go to such lengths.

Fast-forward.

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Her organization, More Than Me, wins a million-dollar grant from Chase on national TV, and she opens a school in Liberia, free to the girls most vulnerable to sex trafficking. You go for the school opening; her mother is there, along with the country's Nobel Peace Prize-winning president and people from all over the world. She has reached some peak in the range of life's success.

Fast-forward.

One year after the opening celebration, the school is closed. All education is suspended indefinitely. The students are quarantined in their neighborhood. She calls you to say she is going back to battle Ebola, she can't let them die there. There is something that can be done and you are the ones to do it.

You say yes. The mission falls through. A week later she is asking again. This time there is funding and approval. You commit. Your family freaks. Your mother begs you not to go. Everyone you know says it's a bad idea. You think about your friends in Liberia. How they too are your brothers and how  they have mothers. How we need a light to be shown on their faces so that the world remembers. You are raised a devoted Catholic. If you attempt to do something Christ-like, everyone tells you not to. Mind you, Jesus and most of the saints died badly at early ages.

At the airport you are hauling 12 boxes of medical supplies; running late, you beg and plead at the ticket counter to get boxes on. They delay the flight to get them on. You touch down to everyone wearing masks as the rain falls from the night sky. Leaving the terminal, the security guard whispers, "don't touch anyone."

Fast-forward.

You've been trained by the World Health Organization and Médecin Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) on how to wear the personal protective equipment (PPE). You are standing in the Ebola treatment ward in full regalia with her. She saw children dying in front of this hospital and wanted to come back to give the blankets, ice cream, candy, and toys to bring a shred of love or compassion to this nightmare. Around you people are dying in their own excrement, laying naked on vomit and chlorine-soaked foam pads. You reach over to give ice cream to a dying child lying alone on the hard tile floor, too weak to roll onto the mat next to him. He touches your rubber glove. You touch the camera. The camera is near your face. Outside you disinfect everything. The fumes from the chlorine make you dizzy. Taking off the final pieces of your PPE, you feel one drop of sweat run off your hair right into your eye. It burns but you can't touch it. Did it pick up Ebola somehow?

Fast-forward.

Three days later, you have diarrhea and a low-grade fever. This is Africa in rainy season, this is normal, but the drop of sweat haunts you. She is freaked too; she vomited, she has diarrhea. It's so hard to tell—could be stress, could be malaria. She goes to Médecin Sans Frontières; her test is negative. You get your blood drawn. You wait on the results. You are part embarrassed, part terrified. Anxiety is making you sicker. You think about your mom and how maybe she was right. That maybe you shouldn't have extended your stay here. You realize that Western privilege will likely save you in the end. Maybe. You are not sure about how that makes you feel. You have watched Liberians die on the steps of hospitals as they waited for basic care.

The day passes waiting for results. You try to work, but worry is eating your brain. The lab tech is not picking up his phone. You try and try. Nothing. You are taking your temperature every 15 minutes. You start popping malaria meds and colloidal silver in preparation for a battle against the virus. You get the guy on the phone, and he says he can come tomorrow to give you the results. You tell him to give it to you on the phone.

Negative.

Color returns to the world. Your strength returns, you are ready to dive back in. You tell the stories of the people, the humanity, the positivity; the yin to the yang of misery and suffering splashed across the headlines. The eye of the storm passes. The hurricane spins on. 

See a gallery of M. Holden Warren's photos here.

Author’s Note: This isn’t fiction, but it’s definitely stylized and very personal. The average Liberian lives with this fear daily, without the possibility of an airlift to America, so my angst is nothing compared with day-to-day struggles of Liberians. I came here to put a human face on this tragedy and highlight the work being done by Katie Meyler’s organization, called More Than Me (morethanme.org), in some of the toughest neighborhoods. One of the most touching was the story of Ester. Meyler found her at a ceremony for Ebola survivors leaving the treatment center. Everyone was overjoyed except a young girl who was crying. After two weeks in a coma Ester awoke to find out that her parents were dead. We took her in as an emergency care case and watched her gain her strength and find her smile slowly but surely. Once the Ministry of Health found space for her, she was placed in a home. The Ebola treatment units are filled with kids, many of whom have been orphaned by Ebola and left with nowhere to go, as their communities and extended families are too poor to take them on. More Than Me is fighting for the children and fight for the future of Liberia; please check them out if you want to know how to help.

See M. Holden Warren's photos at @niutuutolu on instagram and at mholdenwarren.com.

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