DALLAS — Thomas Duncan shivered in the king-size bed, even though he was tucked under the covers and fully dressed — pants, socks and two shirts. It was Sunday morning, Sept. 28, and Duncan, from Liberia, had been in the United States visiting Louise Troh at her Dallas apartment for the past week. He felt weak and cold, he told Troh’s daughter, Youngor Jallah.
So Jallah took a quick trip to Wal-Mart and bought a $50 brown cotton blanket. When she returned, she draped it over Duncan’s shoulders and then gently lifted him by his back to try to get him to drink some hot tea. That’s when she looked into his eyes and knew in her heart that things were very bad.
“I’ve been seeing Ebola on TV, how it starts, with muscle pain, red eyes. When I see his eye, it is all red, and I think maybe this time it is Ebola virus and I should be careful,” Jallah, 35, said in an interview with The Washington Post at her nearby apartment, where she and her family have been quarantined.
She took his temperature — 102 degrees.
“I’m going to call an ambulance,” she said.
Duncan tried to resist. He had been to the hospital once already, several days earlier, and all they had done was send him home with antibiotics. Jallah didn’t listen to him. She dialed 911.
“My daddy is going to the bathroom constantly,” she told the operator, referring to Duncan, whom she considers her stepfather.
Fifteen minutes later, two paramedics knocked on the door. Jallah greeted the two men but told them that they couldn’t enter until they put on gloves and facemasks.
“He just come from Liberia,” she explained. “For safety, don’t touch anything. Viruses.”
She didn’t use the word Ebola, she said, because she didn’t know whether it was the lethal virus. All she knew was that Duncan was very ill and that Liberia was being devastated by the hemorrhagic fever. The paramedics asked Duncan to walk to the ambulance, which he did, but they would not let Jallah give him the blanket.
“He was still cold, and they had nothing to cover him with,” she said.
Jallah didn’t wait to watch the ambulance leave. All she had on her mind was getting to the hospital as quickly as she could, she said. She headed to her red Toyota minivan with the blanket in her arms, joined now by two cousins she had picked up earlier on her way to the Ivy Apartments and her father, Joe Joe Jallah.
An hour later, the four family members were still sitting in the ER waiting room at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, waiting to hear when Duncan would be given a room.
“We’ll let you know,” a nurse said each time Youngor Jallah asked.
So the family continued to wait, watching people come and go through the emergency room. All the while, the neatly folded blanket that hours earlier had covered the first person in this country to be diagnosed with Ebola lay on the chair next to Jallah. The virus can be contagious on surfaces from a few hours to a couple days depending on the material and exposure to sunlight.
Finally, she was told that Duncan had been moved into a room on the first floor.
“But he’s in isolation,” a hospital staffer said. “No visitors.”
Reluctantly, Jallah and the others left the hospital and returned to Troh’s apartment. While a cousin swept the floors, Jallah placed the blanket she had bought back on her mother’s bed, sprayed disinfectant throughout the apartment and sprinkled liquid Clorox on the furniture.
“Don’t sleep in that bed,” she told Troh.
“Oh, you just bought that blanket,” her mother complained.
But Jallah was insistent. Later, she bought her mother sanitizers, a makeshift mattress and two new blankets.
No one in the family has seen Duncan since he left the apartment Sunday morning in an ambulance.
Also living in Troh’s apartment at the time were her son Timothy Wayne, 13, and two men in their 20s, a relative named Oliver Smallwood and a friend named Jeffrey Cole. The four are now quarantined in the apartment.
The night before Duncan was taken to the hospital, Jallah and her partner, Aaron Yah, had left their daughter and three sons, ages 2 to 11, with Troh for the night.
The children usually spent part of each evening with their grandmother because Jallah’s job as an overnight nursing assistant overlaps with Yah’s as a health aide. That Saturday night, the four kids slept overnight on their grandmother’s couches.
On her way to the Ivy Apartments on Sunday morning, Jallah had called Yah to tell him that Duncan was ill and that he should come right away to take the children home.
Three days later, on Wednesday evening, Jallah and Yah were visited in their second-floor apartment by health officials from the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The officials took everyone’s temperature and told them that they should not leave the apartment.
“We don’t have any food,” Jallah said. “What do we do?”
She was told that she and Yah, but not the kids, could go to the store. The two health officials also said they would return every day to see how the family was doing.
On Thursday afternoon, as their 6-year-old daughter drew in a coloring book, the other children were flopped on the couches in the family’s living room, the big-screen TV turned to CNN. Crushed crackers and bits of toys littered the dark-brown rug.
Both Jallah and Yah seemed to be taking the restrictions in stride, although neither is able to go to work. More important, they say, all of them remain healthy.
On Wednesday, Jallah spoke with her mother, who told her daughter that she was feeling fine.
“Just pray to God,” Jallah said to her mother. “There’s nothing we can do. Ask God for everyone to be okay.”
Jallah and Yah are careful not to shake the hands of visitors and when someone leaves, they use a sanitizing wipe to turn the doorknob to let the person out.