It was Thomas Eric Duncan’s first trip to the United States, although his mother, sister, brother, girlfriend and their son live here.
Weeks later, his Facebook portrait in a bright green shirt has been flashed around the world and TV crews now keep vigil outside Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, where Duncan is being kept in isolation with Ebola. His condition was downgraded to critical Saturday, a relative said.
Now, days after he was plucked from obscurity as the first person discovered in the United States with the deadly virus, more is being learned about the 42-year-old Liberian.
Duncan’s family considers him a hero for accompanying a dying woman — his landlord’s pregnant 19-year-old daughter — to a hospital in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, then carrying her back home when she was refused admission.
That act of courage describes the type of person he is, says his half brother Wilfred Smallwood of Phoenix. It might also have infected him with the same disease.
“He’s a good man,” Smallwood said of his brother. “He attends church. He tried to save that woman’s life in Monrovia.”
Smallwood countered speculation that Duncan came to the United State for better treatment for himself since the frail Liberian medical system has been overburdened by the crushing number of Ebola cases.
U.S. visas are not granted overnight, he said, noting that Duncan was granted entry because much of his family lives in the United States — North Carolina, Arizona and Texas.
George Mason, pastor of the east Dallas church that Duncan’s girlfriend attends, agreed with Smallwood, saying the trip to the U.S. was coincidental to the timing of his illness, not causative.
Mason said the girlfriend, Louise Troh — one of the 10 people considered to have had “high-risk” contact with Duncan — had recently made a return trip to Liberia to see her boyfriend.
“They made a plan for him to come to the states … and plan a wedding,” Mason told the Star-Telegram on Saturday. “Every indication I have is that it was a long-standing plan and not related to his being infected.”
Not everyone has a benign view of Duncan.
The Liberian government says it will press charges against him; he is accused of lying on airport exit forms by declaring he had not been in contact with any Ebola victims.
And his boss in Monrovia — Henry Brunson of SafeWay Cargo, a FedEx affiliate — said Duncan left the country Sept. 19 without informing him or giving the customary one month’s notice, he told the Star-Telegram in a phone interview from Monrovia.
Monrovia’s Daily Observer newspaper quoted Brunson as saying Duncan knew he was ill when he flew to Dallas. But Brunson told the Star-Telegram on Friday that he had no idea whether Duncan had contracted the disease. Smallwood insists that his brother did not feel ill when he left Africa.
Whatever the case, Brunson, 60, is not unhappy that his former driver is gone.
“He was very arrogant,” he said. “Every time I gave him instructions, he became confrontational. He didn’t like to follow the rules.”
Brutal civil war
Those might be the sentiments of an angry ex-employer. What’s clear is that Duncan is among the generation of Liberian youths whose lives and education were disrupted by brutal civil war that racked the West African nation from 1989 to 1996, and then from 1999 to 2003.
Liberia, on the coast from which many African captives were shipped to North America, was colonized by freed U.S. slaves who were repatriated in the 1820s with the help of a movement supported at one time by such notables as Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln. They believed that a settlement in Africa could eventually relieve tensions arising from slavery.
Descendants of the colonists, known as Americo-Liberians, declared a republic in 1847. They set up institutions, from Baptist churches to Masonic lodges, that mirrored aspects of the land they left behind, often building them in the style of the Old South. And they were accused by the League of Nations in 1931 of using native Africans as forced labor, tantamount to slavery, even shipping them to Panama and what is today Equatorial Guinea.
Americo-Liberians held sway until Samuel Doe, an army sergeant from an indigenous tribe, overthrew their oligarchy in 1980. Doe’s misrule led to an uprising, which toppled him in 1989, and then all-out civil war — with atrocities that gave the World Court enough evidence to convict former President Charles Taylor three years ago on 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes.
In 1990, Smallwood said, the family fled across the border into Ivory Coast, a former French colony, then left because of the language barrier for English-speaking Ghana, where they scraped by as refugees, unable to work.
He described his brother in prewar Liberia as having been a hardworking teenager, then known to friends as Eric, who put in many hours on his mother’s farm while attending school. But life as a refugee in Ghana was different, and Duncan did not complete his studies.
“Everything was in disarray,” Smallwood said. “We suffered a lot. He tried to go to school but couldn’t. We didn’t have enough water.”
Smallwood himself attended Ghana’s National Technical Engineering College. But even Liberian refugees with degrees couldn’t find jobs, he said.
‘Hopes and dreams’
Liberians had maintained ties with the United States for generations. So it was natural for many of the displaced to find refuge in the U.S., where large communities took root. Smallwood’s sister settled in North Carolina, as did their 72-year-old mother. Then Smallwood was granted a visa to have brain surgery at a U.S. hospital, he said.
Duncan remained in Ghana, then made his way back to Liberia.
Mason said Duncan had a relationship with Troh in Liberia years ago, and they had a son.
“But even though they had a son they never married,” said Mason, senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. “They had a falling out in Liberia and she subsequently came to the States.”
Duncan and Troh recently reconciled and he came here to marry her, with hopes of reuniting with his son. The son, Kasiah Duncan, 19, now attends Angelo State University in San Angelo.
“They were going to talk to me about it,” Mason said, “but never got a chance to make those plans.”
Mason said he talked to Troh on Saturday morning, a day after she and three other family members were moved from their contaminated apartment that they had shared with Duncan to a private residence. He said that she is going from one “CDC checkup to the next” and unsure if she is going to contract the virus, and that she is “overwhelmed with the loss of privacy and freedom.”
The man she loves is in critical condition and she can only talk to him by phone, which only adds to her pain, Mason said.
“She is managing the best she can under the most strenuous of circumstances,” Mason said. “She had hopes and dreams of great things happening with him coming.”
Managing editor Lee Williams contributed to this report.