Fond Memories Of Ebola Victim Eric Duncan, Anger Over His Death

Oct 9, 2014
Originally published on October 9, 2014 9:13 am

He liked to joke around with his neighbors. And he always gave them a helping hand. The neighbors that Thomas Eric Duncan's generous spirit is what cost him his life.

Duncan, 42, was the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States and the first to die of the disease on American soil. He likely contracted the disease in Liberia when he carried a pregnant woman, sick with Ebola, into her house after no clinic would admit her.

That was just before Sept. 19, when Duncan flew from Monrovia to Dallas with stopovers in Brussels and Washington, D.C. He was traveling to Texas to visit his fiancee and son. His relatives insist he didn't know he'd been exposed to Ebola when he boarded that fateful flight to the United States.

In East Monrovia, where Duncan rented a room, he was known as "Eric." And he was well-liked by his neighbors.

"Eric is a nice man," says 31-year-old Irene Seyou, who lived next door. "He ain't got a problem with nobody."

She saw him carry the landlord's pregnant daughter into her house just days before he left for the United States. The girl was bleeding profusely from her mouth and could no longer walk, says Seyou.

"Eric helped the family," she says. "He carried her inside."

The pregnant woman died of Ebola the next day. Three other members of her family died from the disease soon after. Yesterday the girl's father was lying on the porch of the house, barely able to lift himself from a mat, his eyes bloodshot in what Ebola doctors refer to as "black and red." Sweat glistened across his cheeks.

Duncan did not know he'd been exposed to Ebola by the pregnant woman, says his brother-in-law, John Lewis.

"The family said that the girl did not die from Ebola; they continued to say it until they went and buried this girl," says Lewis.

Around the corner from where he lived, Duncan's family runs a small restaurant and shop where he often used to eat. As word spread that Duncan had died, neighbors gathered in flimsy plastic chairs outside the shop to console each other.

Some of the mourners were angry. A young man blasted the Liberian government for threatening to prosecute Duncan for checking "No" on an exit form about whether he'd had any exposure to Ebola.

"Instead of praying that this guy did not die from this disease, and they are saying they'll prosecute him. I'm disappointed in the government," he said.

This man, one of Duncan's neighbors, didn't want his name used out of fear that the government will, in his words, "hunt him" down for his comments.

He's equally critical of the U.S. government, asking why the American citizens treated for Ebola in the U.S. have survived but the one Liberian treated there did not.

"Why is that they couldn't save the brother's life?" he asks. "Why is that they didn't save Eric?"

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You will think of Thomas Eric Duncan differently after you hear this story. Duncan died yesterday in Dallas. He's the man who flew from Liberia to the U.S. and later was diagnosed with Ebola. Dozens of people are being monitored now to see if he passed the virus to them. The failures of the health system are well-documented in this case. Before leaving Liberia, Duncan falsely signed a form saying he had not come in contact with anybody who had the disease. After he arrived in Dallas, a hospital initially sent him home. That's the story we know.

There's a different story though, in Liberia, where Duncan contracted the disease after trying to help a desperate person on the street.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Monrovia.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Thomas Eric Duncan was the first person ever diagnosed with Ebola in the United States and he was the first person to die of the disease on American soil. On September 19, Duncan flew from Monrovia to Dallas with stopovers in Brussels in Washington, D.C. He was traveling to Texas to visit his fiancee and son. In East Monrovia where Duncan rented a room, he was known as Eric.

IRENE SEYOU: Eric is a nice man. He ain't got a problem with nobody.

BEAUBIEN: 31-year-old Irene Seyou, who lived next-door to him, says Duncan was a jovial neighbor. He liked to joke around but he was also always helpful. Seyou says it was Duncan's generosity that got him killed. She describes him carrying his landlord's pregnant daughter from a taxi back into the girl's house, just days before he left for the United States. Seyou says the girl was bleeding profusely from her mouth and could no longer walk, but she'd just been turned away from the hospital.

She says Eric helped carry the girl inside. That pregnant neighbor died of Ebola the next day and three other members of her family succumbed to the disease soon after her. Even yesterday, the girl's father was lying on the porch of the house barely able to lift himself from a mat, his eyes bloodshot and what Ebola doctors here refer to as black and red. Sweat was glistening across his cheeks. But everyone here says Thomas Eric Duncan was healthy when he left for the airport.

Around the corner from where he lived, Duncan's family runs a small restaurant shop where he often used to eat. As word spread that Duncan had died, neighbors gathered in flimsy plastic chairs outside the shop to console each other. His brother-in-law, John Lewis, says Duncan didn't know that he'd been exposed to Ebola by the pregnant girl.

JOHN LEWIS: The family said the girl did not die from Ebola.

BEAUBIEN: Lewis says the girl's family refused to admit that it was Ebola. A young man in a white polo shirt with an emblem from an opposition political party blasted the Liberian government over its treatment of Duncan. He said officials shouldn't have threatened to prosecute Duncan for checking no on an exit form about whether he'd had any exposure to Ebola.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Instead of praying that this young guy recover from this disease and they are saying that they would prosecute him. I'm disappointed in the government. The government should defend its citizens in every capacity.

BEAUBIEN: He says the Liberian government is failing to keep Ebola away from its own citizens and also from spreading abroad. This man is a neighbor of Duncan's, but he doesn't want his name broadcast out of fear the government will, in his words, hunt him down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If they want to hunt me, let them hunt me, but I will say the truth - the government doesn't mean better for our country.

BEAUBIEN: He's equally critical of the U.S. and questions why it is that all of the American citizens who've been treated for Ebola so far in the U.S. have survived, but the one Liberian treated there did not.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In America they've got the best medical care. Why is it that they can't save the brother's life? Why is it they didn't save Eric?

BEAUBIEN: His relatives here say Eric had been incredibly excited about his trip to Dallas. It was supposed to be a joyous visit to see his fiancee and son. Instead, it turned into an international incident. They insist Duncan did not know he'd been exposed to Ebola when he boarded that fateful fight to the United States and they say he's being blamed for events that were way outside of his control. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Monrovia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.