News

Ebola victim leaves legacy of awareness in U.S.

Few visitors from Africa could have been as obscure as Thomas Eric Duncan.

Yet the Liberian truck driver’s name has been flashed countless times on CNN and on local TV news programs across the U.S. since he landed in Dallas a little more than two weeks ago. Through no design of his own, Mr. Duncan was suddenly one of the best-known Africans after anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.

The 42-year-old Liberian, who died Wednesday, left a legacy of heightened awareness: He showed how easily Ebola can cross borders and go undetected by hospital admission staffers, spreading fear and leaving government officials trying to figure out how to prevent others from bringing the fatal disease over.

He was a hero to family members, who believe he contracted the fatal illness trying to be a good Samaritan, accompanying his landlord’s daughter to a Liberian hospital, then carrying the bleeding and convulsing woman home when it was too full of other Ebola patients to admit her.

But in recent days, the Dallas County district attorney talked of prosecuting Mr. Duncan, as did authorities in Liberia, who say he lied on airport forms when he stated he had not been in contact with anyone infected with Ebola. The Observer newspaper of Monrovia, the capital, ran an editorial attacking Mr. Duncan titled, “The Price of Deception.”

A catalyst for change

Mr. Duncan, called Eric by friends and family, had flown to Texas last month to marry a Dallas resident, the mother of his 19-year-old son, whom he hadn’t seen since the youth was 3.

Louise Troh visited Mr. Duncan last year in Liberia, and “they made a plan for him to come to the States … and plan a wedding,” her Dallas minister, Georgia Mason, told the Star-Telegram last weekend. “Every indication I have is that it was a long-standing plan and [his travel] was not related to his being infected.”

The reunion ended tragically Wednesday.

The first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, Mr. Duncan has prompted authorities to reconsider health-check procedures at international entry points.

Some changes have already been made at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, which initially sent him home with ineffective drugs after doctors failed to note that a nurse had flagged him as a recent arrival from Africa.

Mr. Duncan’s hospitalization for Ebola triggered widespread fears. Parents pulled children from school, people were seen wearing surgical masks on Dallas sidewalks, and Big Tex admonished State Fair goers, “Remember, always wash your hands before eating!” U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, called for an air travel ban on Liberia.

The victim’s brief time in North Texas and now his death have awakened Americans to the grim reality of how easily the little-understood virus can cross borders.

Two American missionaries working in Liberia, including Dr. Kent Brantly, a former Fort Worth resident, were given an experimental drug and survived. But there was no ZMapp left by the time Mr. Duncan was diagnosed.

The eleventh-hour use of another untested drug, brincidofovir, failed to stop the disease from progressing.

‘Sorrow and anger’

Mr. Duncan was born into a middle-class Liberian family. His father was an engineer with the Liberia American Mining Co., and his mother ran a sprawling farm that she had built up over the years. According to his Facebook page, he attended E. Jonathan Goodridge High School in Monrovia.

But his life was turned upside down when he was 18.

In 1990, his family members 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.

“Everything was in disarray,” said his half brother, Wilfred Smallwood. “We suffered a lot. He tried to go to school but couldn’t. We didn’t have enough water.”

Eventually, Mr. Duncan got vocational training in Ghana.

When he left Liberia on Sept. 19, he had been employed as a truck driver for a customs clearance firm that contracted with FedEx.

Duncan had met Troh two decades earlier, but they had a falling-out, said Mason, of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.

Reports said Troh followed a Liberian boyfriend to Dallas, where she had another child and raised her son by Mr. Duncan. Karsiah Duncan, 19, was a quarterback at Conrad High School and now attends Angelo State University in San Angelo.

“I am now dealing with the sorrow and anger that his son was not able to see him before he died,” Troh said in a statement issued after Mr. Duncan’s death.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

  Comments