Three years ago, Liberia was in the opening act of an unfolding catastrophe. The first cases of Ebola had been confirmed in the country on March 30, 2014. Over the next months, the virus spread, largely undetected at first. By late summer, every day the country awoke to news of dying Liberians being turned away from treatment or of families ripped apart by the virus. Uncertainty and fear swirled in the streets of Monrovia.
But on the afternoon of Sept. 11 that year, amid the chaos, there was a quiet pocket of joy.
It was at the Ebola Treatment Unit called “ELWA2,” on the outskirts of the city. The unit, a small concrete building initially intended to be a cafeteria and laundromat, was run by Jerry Brown, a Liberian doctor who would later appear on the cover of Time magazine as an “Ebola fighter.”
During a break in the rains, three small children walked along the gravel path leading away from the unit, draped in ill-fitting clothing and followed by two young men and a man and woman in their 40s.
“Y’all one family?” asked a member of a burial team, waiting outside with her crew to collect the day’s dead bodies from the unit for cremation.
“One family,” replied the older man, beaming through a weary face as he climbed into the back of a pickup truck. “We are seven.”
The Ebola crisis in Liberia is officially over. But scars remain. Liberia’s economy is only beginning to recover from damage suffered during the outbreak, and across the country survivors of the virus continue to mourn members of their family who died of the disease. According to the World Health Organization, of the 10,666 people confirmed to have come down with Ebola during the outbreak, only 45 percent survived.
For Reuben Shellu and his family, that grim statistic is a reminder of their nearly miraculous good fortune. Reuben, his wife and their five children walked into treatment at ELWA2 in late August 2014. Beating overwhelming odds, less than a month later all seven walked out, healthy and alive.
“With God’s help, we made it,” says Reuben, sitting in the courtyard of the mud-brick home where he and his family live at the edge of Monrovia, near the ruins of a luxury hotel destroyed during the country’s civil war. “So we can overcome anything.”
Reuben: “We didn’t know that the virus was already in us”
The Shellu family’s ordeal began around the same time that Liberia’s Ebola crisis was spinning out of control. In late July, Reuben’s younger brother fell ill, showing up at the Shellu home with red eyes and stomach cramps. He was a medical technician at a nearby clinic, and his supervisor, a well-regarded doctor, had died earlier that week of what would later be confirmed to be Ebola.
Reuben and his family took pity on his brother, allowing him to sleep in their bedroom. When he became sicker, Reuben’s wife, Bindu, cleaned his vomit and bathed his forehead with cool water.
Reuben had heard rumors about Ebola but didn’t believe they were true, so he brought his brother, now too weak to talk, to their father’s house to receive treatment from a local healer. Hours later, Reuben received a call. His brother was dead.
The news scared Reuben, shocking him into giving a second thought to the radio jingles he’d heard about the threat of Ebola.
“I called my wife and explained the situation,” he recalls. “I said the kids shouldn’t come close to me. We didn’t know that the virus was already in us.”
Remembering their courtship: “I told her this is overdue. I want you to be my wife”
Reuben and Bindu had met years earlier, during the country’s civil war in 1995. Bindu grew up in Gbarnga, a central hub city, but when the war broke out her family returned to their traditional village in a forested part of western Liberia.
Reuben spent a few months trying to catch Bindu’s eye in the village, helping her father with the farm work and sending his sister to gauge Bindu’s interest in him. Bindu was skeptical at first, but one day Reuben found her sitting in front of her house.
“I told her this is overdue,” he remembers. “I don’t want you as a casual girlfriend, I want you to be my wife.”
A few months later, Bindu was pregnant with their first son, Hassan. The three stayed in the village with Bindu’s son from a prior relationship, Sekou, until one day he decided he’d had enough of the forest and that it was time to move to the city to find better opportunities.
In Monrovia, they settled down in a suburb and had three more children together: Luqman, Ramatu and Kadija. Reuben’s father was Christian, but his mother, aunt, and Bindu were Muslim, so they raised the children to speak Arabic and study the Quran.
Reuben wanted to finish his education but found that the demands of raising a family were too much to balance with classes. He began working as a day laborer for construction firms.
The worrying begins: “I felt we were finished”
After Reuben’s brother died, he realized he was in danger. Before going home, he traveled to the Doctors Without Borders treatment unit an hour away for an Ebola test. But the unit was overwhelmed, and the staff told him that unless he was showing symptoms of the illness they couldn’t administer a test.
When Reuben arrived home from the clinic, he discovered that he had been right to worry. Bindu was feverish and weak, and the three youngest children were hot to the touch and complaining of headaches.
For a few days, Reuben continued to travel to the forest a few hours outside Monrovia to collect coal to sell on the roadside, hoping that his wife and children would recover on their own. He’d also started to feel unwell, borrowing a heavy jacket from a friend to cope with heavy chills he was experiencing.
But the family’s condition deteriorated. Eventually it became clear to Reuben that if they weren’t treated they could die. By this point, Reuben suspected he and his family might have contracted Ebola, although he still wasn’t sure. So he asked the friend who’d loaned him the jacket to drive them in his pickup truck to the Doctors Without Borders unit.
When they reached the unit, they received bad news: There was no space for any new patients that day.
By this point, Bindu couldn’t stand up or talk, and the children were growing sicker. The sun was fierce that day, Reuben recalls, and when he realized they weren’t going to be admitted, his heart sank. “I felt we were finished,” he says.
Finding a room: “I told them look, as much as possible, you stay together”
But one of the Doctors Without Borders staff pointed them to ELWA2, only minutes down the road, saying they should check to see if there was space. As luck would have it, the unit had discharged seven patients that day, and its staff agreed to admit the Shellu family.
When Reuben and his family were waiting in the triage area, his son Luqman, only 7 at the time, vomited blood on the asphalt. A local journalist noticed and asked a health worker: “They’re all from the same family?” When she was told they were, she broke down in tears.
Jerry Brown, who had supervised the unit since it opened a few weeks earlier, remembers the day the Shellus were admitted. The unit had been set up to accommodate 50 patients, but by that point in late August 2014, it had more than 80 patients. He says that survival rates had started to tick upward at the unit as the staff found their footing, but that over half of their patients were still dying.
“We had only one room [available], with three beds, and I put the family there,” Brown recalls. “I told them look, as much as possible, you stay together.”
Reuben says that once they were admitted, he collapsed. He’d been saving his strength to care for Bindu and the kids, becoming severely ill once that immediate need was taken care of. “Maybe God kept me strong to help my family,” he says.
For the next few days, he crawled from one side of the room to the next, battling joint pains to check on the intravenous drips inserted in his children’s arms to prevent dehydration and to press them to take their medication and eat. Sekou and Hassan were in their early 20s, but Luqman, Ramatu and Kadija were all under 10.
At one point, his youngest daughter Kadija, a playful, soft-faced 4-year-old, began to experience convulsions. He recalls cradling her in his arms and feeding her mashed-up bits of food. Nurses determined that Kadija had malaria as well as Ebola and began giving her drugs to treat that infection.
The tide turns: “It was a kind of jubilation for the team”
Over the next week, Liberian health workers monitored the Shellu family. As days passed, they began to realize that they might be witness to a miracle. The Shellus were all going to live.
“One thing that motivated our staff and myself to work was every time we saw someone survive,” Brown says. “It was a kind of jubilation for the team, we felt like we’d achieved some kind of victory.”
Brown says he’s not sure how or why all seven of the Shellus survived Ebola. “We treated them as we would any other patient,” he says.
In the preceding weeks, staff at ELWA2 had witnessed a series of heartbreaking events. Just prior to the Shellu’s admittance, another family in treatment hadn’t been as lucky, with the children leaving the unit as orphans. For the exhausted health workers, the Shellu family’s recovery was cause for celebration.
“I mean, it was a day of jubilation for us,” Brown recalls. “We were very happy that all of them made it.”
Going home: “I tell God, thank you we didn’t die”
Reuben, who is deeply religious, says that he always believed they would survive. “When we entered the ETU, I told people that we were going to come back,” he says. “I had that positive view that we were going to survive.”
When the Shellus came home after 18 days in the unit, packed into the back of the same pickup truck that had carried them to treatment, a celebration erupted. Dozens of neighbors came to congratulate Reuben and Bindu — from a safe distance. Women sang and beat drums.
Reuben says that in the following months, people in the neighborhood were wary of coming to sit with them, telling their children not to play with the Shellus and grumbling about the fact that they had to share a common well. But over time, the stigma waned as people in the area realized that it was safe to be around them.
Still, the family’s recovery has been hard. Reuben says that the children have trouble remembering things at times and occasionally complain of headaches. He experiences mysterious abdominal pains. And he says a rough economy has made it challenging for him to find work. Bindu’s small business selling food items out of a stall next to the house is their primary source of income.
But unlike so many other Ebola survivors, the Shellus do not have a hole in their lives where their close family members used to be. While Luqman, Ramatu and Kadija dart in and out of the courtyard, playing and helping Bindu with the chores, Reuben reflects on their good fortune.
“I tell God, thank you we didn’t die at the [Ebola Treatment Unit], where the bodies had to be cremated. I think about my little brother when they are decorating graves, because he doesn’t have one. It just enters my mind, suppose that happened to my family.”
“Seeing us, a whole family, [other survivors] sometimes say, ‘Wow. God really made it for you people, we are proud.’ They rejoice with us.”
Ashoka Mukpo is a freelance journalist and videographer who covers human rights, politics and culture in West Africa. He is also an Ebola survivor. Find him at @unkyoka.