Maryland native Nathaniel Dennis, 24, did not have Ebola. But when he died Wednesday morning in Liberia after a weeklong coma, unable to leave the country for treatment, his family said they counted him a victim of the deadly virus.
“Ebola shouldn’t have the power to kill people without the disease,” said Norwood Dennis IV, 25, his older brother by just 364 days.
Dennis, of Columbia, Md., died in Sinkor, Liberia after testing negative for Ebola. Since he was discovered comatose last week, his family had been fighting to fly him out to Ghana or to the United States to receive attention from a neurologist at a better-equipped facility, but travel restrictions in place to stop the spread of Ebola kept him trapped.
Dennis was working at a local radio station in Monrovia, pursuing his dream of a career in music and living with his mother, who had moved back to Liberia a few years ago to teach and help rebuild her native country after the civil wars. Early in the morning last week, his mother walked into his room and found Dennis unconscious but breathing.
Dennis’s 27-year-old sister, Natasha Dennis, said her family had always called the youngest brother the “miracle child” because he was born three months premature and underwent brain surgery as an infant. She said they did not yet know the specific cause of his death, but suspected he had multiple seizures before falling into a coma.
“He was our baby brother, I always was the protector,” Natasha said, apologizing for crying.
At first Dennis was placed in quarantine, where he was tested for ebola for three days, during which time his mother was unable to see him, his sister said. When he was released after testing negative, the family transferred him to a different hospital that they said did not have the tools to perform dialysis when Dennis’s kidney function deteriorated.
“I don’t know if he would have survived, but he deserved that chance,” his sister said. “He deserved the chance for us to fight with him and maybe save him.”
The family had been in constant contact with the U.S. embassy in Liberia after Nathanial became ill but because of the fear of Ebola’s spread, they were unable to evacuate.
The State Department was unable to comment before publication.
Norwood Dennis IV said he was praying for the two Americans that the State Department confirmed Friday would be flown to the U.S. to receive treatment for Ebola. But he said he wanted to call attention to the possibility of other Americans with medical emergencies in Liberia who have been affected by the epidemic even though they have not contracted the disease.
“If they’re helping [the Americans infected with Ebola], why can’t my brother get help?,” Norwood said. “He’s an American citizen just the same.”
Dennis’s siblings started an online fundraiser to raise money and awareness for his case. They said they hoped to use the money to bring their brother’s body to the U.S. to be buried. Any remainder would go toward improving the Liberian health care system.
“People shouldn’t have to be flown out of the country to access good medical care,” Natasha said. “We don’t want his death to be in vain, we don’t want any other families to ever feel this pain.”
The Liberian-American siblings had gone to Liberia to visit their mother for her 50th birthday, when Nathaniel decided to stay and work. Until then, he and his older brother had always shared a room.
“He was so optimistic and creative. He was an inspiration in my life and now I don’t have that anymore,” Norwood said. “When I started working and I didn’t spend as much time with him, I said, ‘I know I don’t say this so much anymore but I love you, you’re my only brother,.’ I’m glad I got to tell him that.”