Who Decides Who Lives and Who Dies When an Ebola Outbreak Creates Hysteria?

Nathaniel Dennis in Liberia in 2012
Courtesy of Natasha Dennis

Two Americans with Ebola have been flown in from Liberia over the past week and treated with a “secret serum” in the hopes of helping them successfully combat the deadly virus.

However, Ebola has already taken its first American victim.

To be fair, 24-year-old Nathaniel Dennis did not have Ebola, but the fear inflamed by the rapidly spreading disease that has already killed more than 800 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea certainly contributed to his death, his older sister, Natasha Dennis, told The Root.


“The first case of Ebola was in February, March. Why wasn’t it more contained then? What happened to the education of the people to make it get to this point right now? My brother, he’s still a victim of Ebola, but he’s a victim of the hysteria it caused,” says Dennis, 27, who lives in California.

It all started following a family vacation to Liberia, where the siblings’ mother, Precious Dennis, lives as an educator. Nathaniel decided to stay in Liberia once the trip was over when the music lover found a job at a local radio station. After about a month, on July 24, his mother awoke to find her youngest son comatose on his bedroom floor, his body stiff and his eyes rolled back, Natasha Dennis said. His room was in disarray.

“That’s when the Ebola outbreak started getting really big; of course, any time anyone’s sick they have to confirm that it’s not Ebola, so they put him in quarantine right away and he was there for three days just being treated for Ebola. All his tests came back negative,” Dennis explains. “So at this point we’re calling the embassy, we’re trying to get him out, everyone’s telling me that they’re not flying into Liberia at this time, no one can help us, there’s nothing they can do, things like that.”


When Nathaniel Dennis was released from quarantine, the family attempted to get him evacuated to Ghana to receive the treatment he needed—which was just a respirator and a dialysis machine. However, Ghana wouldn’t let him in, given the Ebola scare and having closed its borders to Liberia.

“My poor brother," Dennis says. “He lasted a week, and at the end, he just needed a ventilator to keep him breathing, to help him, and they didn’t have that.”


Nathaniel Dennis died on July 30, with a doctor telling the family that the cause was kidney failure. The family’s frustration did not end there, however.


“What we still don’t understand is that the next day after my brother passed, they sent a plane to go get these doctors that do have Ebola, and I think that’s the most frustrating part for us. We can’t understand,” the grieving big sister tells The Root.

After all, Nathaniel Dennis was an American, too, a Maryland native like his siblings.


“Everyone knew he was an American citizen, he obviously needed help … he was in a coma, he obviously needed to see a doctor immediately, and for that to not have happened, or someone to help make that happen, is ridiculous, and then they send for two American citizens that do have Ebola. It doesn’t make any sense,” Natasha Dennis says.

However, she isn’t resentful of the treatment that the two Americans with Ebola were afforded.  


“I’m so happy that they were able to come here and get that health care. We’re absolutely praying for their families, hoping for recovery, hoping for a serum that works,” she says. “So we’re hoping and praying something comes from this. That it wasn’t in vain that they were brought to the States … and we can help Liberia and we can help everyone from this disease.”                                      


But still, there are questions that she needs answered.

“I can understand Ghana closing their borders, as difficult, as hard as it was to accept. But why couldn’t we send him materials? Why couldn’t we send equipment? I don’t understand why nothing was able to get done. After we are able to give him a proper burial, [we will work on] changing policies both with the State Department and embassy. You shouldn’t tell American citizens there’s nothing you can do. That is absolutely your job to help us and do something,” she says.


In an email, State Department spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala told The Root, “We express our deepest condolences to Nathaniel Dennis’ family and friends after his recent death in Liberia,” adding that “the U.S. Embassy in Liberia provided all appropriate consular assistance.” However, she refrained from giving more details about the case, citing respect for the Dennis family.

The family plans to start a foundation in Nathaniel Dennis’ name, in the hope that this never happens again, and is focused on bringing his body home. It has started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the cost. Then, hopefully, an autopsy will be done to find out exactly what went wrong.


“We still don’t know what happened to him, why he was in that state. He definitely needed to see a neurologist, [but] time wasn’t on our side, the timing of the Ebola hysteria, all these things,” Natasha Dennis adds, explaining that her brother, who had a shunt in his brain, had been born premature and had been a patient of the neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson.


“I feel really strongly that, again, this could have been prevented, and I think wherever the ball fell short, we need to change policies and how things are done and how fast people get back in touch with one another. He did fight for a week, and in that week we could’ve done so much more than what was done,” Natasha Dennis says. 

Still, even in the face of tragedy, she finds hope in her brother’s faith.

“I think what makes me the happiest, in my family, he has probably, next to my mother, the closest relationship to God, and that kind of gives me comfort. He was the type of person to wake up and walk to church by himself, and you don’t see that in a lot of young 20-year-olds,” she says, laughing as she describes her brother, whom she called the “No. 1 [Baltimore] Ravens fan.” “He was just such a positive person, and I hope some of that rubs off on me, because I don’t know where he got this kind of strength to be such a loving person, but he was.”


Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.          

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