It had been planned as a vigil, but the service quickly turned into a memorial once the news broke that Ebola had killed Eric Duncan, the virus’s first victim in the US.
Before his condition worsened and he died in a Dallas hospital at 7.51am local time on Wednesday, eight days after his diagnosis was confirmed, Duncan’s last words were spoken to a nurse from the bed in his isolation room: a request to see Karsiah, the son he last saw 16 years ago when the boy was three.
That final hope went unfulfilled. A student in San Angelo, 250 miles away, Karsiah was staying in Dallas and preparing to head to Texas Health Presbyterian hospital in the hope of seeing Duncan at about 9am when his mother called him to tell him his father had died.
The sense of disconnection and distance, even from relatives in the same city, was replicated at Wilshere Baptist church on Wednesday evening at a service that was mainly for Duncan’s close friends and family, but necessarily took place without them.
If the virus no longer seems abstract and exotic but real and local for worried Dallasites,, for those nearest to Duncan their brush with Ebola has had a distancing effect, segregating them from each other and the wider community. Some barriers are temporary, but others will linger as the consequences of the 42-year-old’s decision to leave Liberia for Texas to start afresh with the woman he loved and a son he hardly knew.
After Duncan became seriously ill at her apartment last week, Louise Troh, her 13-year-old son and two nephews were quarantined at a house somewhere in the Dallas area. They will remain there until around 19 October, when the 21-day incubation period for Ebola will be over. It meant they could not be among the 150 or so in the pews who sang hymns, listened to Bible readings, prayed and held candles that flickered, throwing dancing shadows on to the church walls.
It was here that Troh was baptised last June, about eight months after she was introduced to the congregation by three nieces, and where she went to Bible study classes on Sunday mornings. The pastor, George Mason, and Clay Jenkins, a local judge, travelled to her temporary accommodation to tell the family about Duncan’s death, staying for several hours.
The house has a common kitchen, living room and eating area but the occupants sleep in separate bedrooms. Mason and Jenkins gathered them together but they were forced to grieve apart, unwilling to risk hugging each other in case one of them is carrying the virus.
“One of the most painful things in this process has been because of their isolation. They’ve not only been moved from everyone else, they are even supposed to keep away from each other in the house,” Mason said after the service.
“The human instinct is to want to rush towards each other in moments like these and to touch each other and hold each other, to comfort each other … it was the most unnatural-feeling thing, as you might imagine.”
During the ceremony, which was streamed live online, Mason described Duncan as a kind, respectful man who, Troh told him, “knew how to talk to ladies, he didn’t let anyone use bad language around women”. He said they planned to build a family together in the US and that he wanted to work hard and save up enough money for them to return to Liberia one day.
Mason said Duncan’s spoke his last words around Friday, shortly before he became unresponsive and his condition was deteriorated.
Troh and Duncan reportedly met at a refugee camp in Ivory Coast after fleeing war in Liberia, and she left for the US with Karsiah once they had secured visas. When Karsiah found out that his father had passed away, Mason said, it was “an eruption of grief”. He had hoped Duncan would be able to attend his high school graduation.
Troh, a 54-year-old nursing assistant, issued a statement on Wednesday that said: “I trust a thorough examination will take place regarding all aspects of his care … I am now dealing with the sorrow and anger that his son was not able to see him before he died.”
That appeared to be a reference to frustration at the hospital’s initial failure to diagnose him correctly, and a delay of several days before they treated him with experimental drugs. Mason said that Duncan’s deterioration and death took relatives by surprise, because they had put their faith in the new course of treatment.
“This was part of the shock to the family, because the announcement that he was at long last receiving some sort of treatment protocol was an explosion of joy for them. When I was able to tell them that, [Troh] just sort of did a high-pitched scream, ‘glory to God, glory to God’. She left the phone for a second, I think she might have been dancing around,” Mason said.
“She was very excited thinking her prayers were being answered and maybe this was just what they’d been praying for and hoping for. Honestly from the point of view of the family and the boys who were in quarantine there was now a great sense of hopefulness for the first time because up till now they were very frustrated by the lack of treatment available to him.”
“When people are in a situation like this they hear about others, they compare and they wonder. They don’t have all the information necessary to evaluate whether this is the same kind of situation or different. It only feels like the same to them. They can’t evaluate what differences might be and so it immediately makes your imagination go to, who was at fault here that he didn’t get that sort of thing? Those are natural human reactions and they’re not meant to be accusations, only frustrations of misunderstanding,” he said.
With Troh confined to the house there is no funeral currently planned, but there may eventually be a service to bury Duncan’s ashes, Mason said. Federal guidelines call for the remains of Ebola victims to be cremated .
Even after they are deemed not to be contagious, there is a risk the family will be treated as pariahs in the city. Mason said it would be impossible for them to return to their former apartment complex and that private donors have already stepped up to help find them a place to live and pay for their rent, furnishings and other expenses. The family had craved a new start – but not like this, not without the man who was supposed to be at the heart of it.