Editor’s Note: Americans are fortunate that the Ebola virus was not carried into Minneapolis Airport, but he was exposed to many people. Hopefully no one was infected. Thoughts and prayers go out to family of the victim.
Nigeria felt a chill from the hot zone when a 40-year-old man collapsed and died from the dread Ebola virus after flying there from Liberia.
That hot zone chill now reaches America, with word that the same man was scheduled to fly to Minneapolis in time for an August 16 party celebrating the birthdays of two of his three young daughters.
Patrick Sawyer was a naturalized U.S. citizen who worked for the Finance Ministry of his native Liberia and returned home to his wife and children in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, whenever he could. He almost certainly would have boarded that flight to Minneapolis had he remained at least outwardly healthy enough not to exhibit symptoms.
One nightmare scenario would have been for him to go ahead with the birthday party for his daughters even though he was feeling a little flu-ish and maybe dish out cake and ice cream to his little girls before anybody imagined he might be carrying the deadly virus from distant West Africa.
“He could have brought Ebola here,” his wife, Decontee Sawyer, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
Patrick had been tending to a sick sister named Princess in Liberia and had not learned the exact nature of her illness until after she died.
“He knew she was sick and he kept caring for her, but he didn’t know it was Ebola,” Decontee said. “It could have been malaria.”
He was still grieving when he texted his wife on July 18, but he gave no indication that he was feeling ill. Decontee would wonder if witnessing his sister’s terrible death had left him unable to accept that he could suffer the same fate as a result of trying to aid her.
“I think he might have been in a state of denial,” Decontee suggested.
Patrick fell manifestly ill on July 20 during the 6-hour, 40-minute journey via two flights on ASKY Airlines, from Monrovia to Lomé in Togo and on to Lagos, where he was scheduled to attend an economic development conference. He collapsed at the Lagos airport and was placed in isolation at First Consultants Hospital in Obalende, a high-density neighborhood in the teeming city.
After Patrick’s death on July 25, the hospital was evacuated and quarantined for a week to allow decontamination. The 44 people with whom he was known to have had contact at the hospital—38 health-care workers and six lab techs—either were isolated or monitored, depending on the exposure. Also being monitored are 15 people he encountered at the airport, reportedly including the Nigerian ambassador to Liberia.
Nigerian officials were unable to check who might have been exposed on the two ASKY flights, as the airline inexplicably had failed to provide passenger lists. ASKY did suspend all service to Liberia and to Sierra Leone, which also has reported numerous Ebola cases.
In Minnesota, Decontee had no idea anything was amiss until she got a phone call on Friday informing her that her husband was dead.
“Just out of nowhere, out of the blue,” she said. “I never thought Ebola would break down my front door, and that’s what it did.”
She was faced with trying to explain to 5-year-old Eve and 4-year-old Mia why their father would not be at the party to mark the birthdays they both celebrate in August.
“They can barely understand what’s going on,” Decontee said. “I told the girls he’s looking down at them, they can talk to him now anytime they want.”
The youngest, Bella, had just turned 1 in March and likely will have no memory of her father. The thought of what all three girls had lost and what so many other children stand to lose because of this virus filled Decontee with an urgency to do something to fight it.
“I feel like Ebola has declared war on me, and I’m ready to do it right back,” she said. “You can only cry so much, and then you have to do something. Because while you’re crying, people are dying still. “