By Josephus Weeks
The Dallas Morning News, Oct. 14, 2014
On Friday, Sept. 25, 2014, my uncle Thomas Eric Duncan went to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. He had a high fever and stomach pains. He told the nurse he had recently been in Liberia. But he was a man of color with no health insurance and no means to pay for treatment, so within hours he was released with some antibiotics and Tylenol.
Two days later, he returned to the hospital in an ambulance. Two days after that, he was finally diagnosed with Ebola. Eight days later, he died alone in a hospital room.
Now, Dallas suffers. Our country is concerned. Greatly. About the lack of answers and transparency coming from a hospital whose ignorance, incompetence and indecency has yet to be explained. I write this on behalf of my family because we want to set the record straight about what happened and ensure that Thomas Eric did not die in vain. So, here’s the truth about my uncle and his battle with Ebola.
Thomas Eric Duncan was cautious. Among the most offensive errors in the media during my uncle’s illness are the accusations that he knew he was exposed to Ebola — that is just not true. Eric lived in a careful manner, as he understood the dangers of living in Liberia amid this outbreak. He limited guests in his home, he did not share drinking cups or eating utensils.
And while the stories of my uncle helping a pregnant woman with Ebola are courageous, Thomas Eric personally told me that never happened. Like hundreds of thousands of West Africans, carefully avoiding Ebola was part of my uncle’s daily life.
And I can tell you with 100 percent certainty: Thomas Eric would have never knowingly exposed anyone to this illness.
Thomas Eric Duncan was a victim of a broken system. The biggest unanswered question about my uncle’s death is why the hospital would send home a patient with a 103-degree fever and stomach pains who had recently been in Liberia — and he told them he had just returned from Liberia explicitly due to the Ebola threat.
Some speculate that this was a failure of the internal communications systems. Others have speculated that antibiotics and Tylenol are the standard protocol for a patient without insurance.
The hospital is not talking. Until then, we are all left to wonder. What we do know is that their error affects all of society. Their bad judgment or misjudgment sent my uncle back into the community for days with a highly contagious case of Ebola. And now, officials suspect that a breach of protocol by the hospital is responsible for a new Ebola case, and that all health care workers who care for my uncle could potentially be exposed.
Their error set the wheels in motion for my uncle’s death and additional Ebola cases, and their ignorance, incompetence or indecency has created a national security threat for our country.
Thomas Eric Duncan could have been saved. Finally, what is most difficult for us — Thomas Eric’s mother, children and those closest to him — to accept is the fact that our loved one could have been saved. From his botched release from the emergency room to his delayed testing and delayed treatment and the denial of experimental drugs that have been available to every other case of Ebola treated in the U.S., the hospital invited death every step of the way.
When my uncle was first admitted, the hospital told us that an Ebola test would take three to seven days. Miraculously, the deputy who was feared to have Ebola just last week was tested and had results within 24 hours.
The fact is, nine days passed between my uncle’s first ER visit and the day the hospital asked our consent to give him an experimental drug — but despite the hospital’s request they were never able to access these drugs for my uncle. (Editor’s note: Hospital officials have said they started giving Duncan the drug Brincidofovir on October 4.) He died alone. His only medication was a saline drip.
For our family, the most humiliating part of this ordeal was the treatment we received from the hospital. For the 10 days he was in the hospital, they not only refused to help us communicate with Thomas Eric, but they also acted as an impediment. The day Thomas Eric died, we learned about it from the news media, not his doctors.
Our nation will never mourn the loss of my uncle, who was in this country for the first time to visit his son, as my family has. But our nation and our family can agree that what happened at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas must never happen to another family.
In time, we may learn why my uncle’s initial visit to the hospital was met with such incompetence and insensitivity. Until that day comes, our family will fight for transparency, accountability and answers, for my uncle and for the safety of the country we love.
Josephus Weeks, a U.S. Army and Iraq War veteran who lives in North Carolina, wrote this piece exclusively for The Dallas Morning News. Reach him at email@example.com.