Stigma is a major problem in Nigeria and the earlier we change such attitude, the better.
Dennis Akagha has been certified to be free of Ebola Virus, but his fiancée, Miss Justina Ejelonu, a nurse at First Consultant Hospital, Lagos Island, Lagos who came in contact with Patrick Sawyer, did not survive the disease. In this interview with Punch's Gbenro Adeoye, he shares his near-death experience, the stigma he faced and the promise he made to his late fiancée:
You’ve been certified to be Ebola Virus negative, for how long has that been?
It’s going to two weeks now. Saturday (today) will make it two weeks exactly that I’ve been certified negative. I’ve not had any of the symptoms since then. But I’m granting this interview basically for one reason; before I was quarantined, I saw it in the Bible that I would not die but live to testify the goodness of God upon my life. When God saved me, it is my responsibility to tell the whole world and Nigerians that God is still in the business of doing miracles. So I’m a living testimony of the goodness of God.
You said before you were quarantined, that means at that point, you knew you had Ebola Virus
Yes. But it was not that I was tested positive to it but I had started seeing the symptoms; I had started feeling feverish and having pains all over my body, my muscles, my waist. I was described as being symptomatic at the time. The symptoms came up for like three days. My temperature rose.
So what do you really think saved you? Did the doctors give you any drugs?
I will always tell the whole world that it’s a miracle because I met people who were at the isolation centre before me and I left the place before them. I stayed there for five days. It was a miracle. What worked for me was my faith and my belief because right from the day I saw the symptoms, I had been talking to myself. I found it in the Bible that the power of life and death is in my tongue which means anything I speak happens for me. At that point in time, I started speaking to my body, my blood system and doing the things you will ordinarily not understand. These are the things we call mysteries.
Would you like to share some of these mysteries?
I can share them but some people may not believe them. In the church where I worship, we believe in holy communion and feet washing. The Bible says that the life of the body is in the blood and I also found where Jesus was telling his disciples, if you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will have life abundantly and not die. With this understanding, I started taking the blood of Jesus and eating the flesh three times in a day. I started doing feet washing. These are the mysteries and they are the things that helped deliver me from the bondage of sickness. I got the bread from my church and I was blessing my water to do feet washing.
You were there for five days, what was your experience like within that period?
I was taken in on Tuesday, August 19, 2014 and left there on Saturday night, August 23, 2014. The experience wasn’t funny, anyway. I really want to appreciate Lagos State. The state has done the best out of all the places where Ebola has been ravaging lives. Initially, there were no volunteers and the facilities were not there but it was because the virus came unexpectedly. Nobody expected it. But within a short time, the facilities improved, so the state tried. The first day I got there, I was just telling myself that I was not Ebola positive. When I got there, they took my blood samples and the results came out the following day. Then, I was kept in a ward meant for suspects. We had two wards: one is a ward for persons suspected to have the virus and the other was for persons confirmed to already have it. So once you are confirmed to have it, they will take you away from the ‘suspects’ ward’ to the other ward.
When I was confirmed to have it, they took me to the ‘confirmed’ ward. I went in with them and I met others there. Immediately I lay down on my bed, I cried but nobody knew I was shedding tears. I just lay there and cried. I was crying to God because I already told him that I would not die but live. It took me five minutes to shed the tears and afterwards, I wiped my tears. One of the doctors came in to tell me that my results were not clear to them. She said the results were bulky; that was the language she used and that they could not understand it. In other words, I wasn’t meant to be there. So they took me back to the ‘suspects’ ward and said they would rerun the tests. That was on Wednesday. They reran the tests and the results came out on Thursday afternoon. It was positive. So they asked me to go back to the ‘confirmed’ ward. I told them I was not sick.
They said that I was positive but I insisted that I didn’t have Ebola. We quarrelled for sometime so it took me time to go back to the ‘confirmed’ ward. It was after much pleading and also because they said I was a risk to others in the ‘suspects’ ward. So I went back to the ‘confirmed’ ward but I was still saying I was not sick. I was still taking my holy communion and doing feet washing and praying. I slept thereon Thursday night and then they came again to take my blood samples. I was there on Friday too. I was doing my regular exercise- press up and everything. Then on Saturday night, they called me that I had been discharged. I had even forgotten that my blood samples were taken for a test. They said my results came out negative. In that case, I didn’t have any business there anymore.
How did you feel when you were told you could leave the centre?
The first thing I did was to go back to my closet, knelt down and thanked God. I felt happy because I knew it was not just an ordinary miracle. When I was there, I posted on my Facebook wall that my case would defy all medical terminologies and theories. And a lot of people wrote ‘Amen’ to it. But some of them may not understand but I had this belief in myself and in the God that I serve. A lot of people were also strongly supporting me with their prayers. I will encourage people having health challenges or suffering from terminal illnesses not to keep silent, they should tell others. I had friends and relatives praying and fasting on my behalf. On Facebook, my Whatsapp group, they were praying for me and sending me messages and Bible portions on what to read and declare. Those things helped me to boost my faith.
How have your friends, relatives and neighbours been relating with you since you returned from the isolation centre?The stigma will always be there and it will take some time for it to phase out. It happened when HIV and Lassa fever came out. So this is not the first and it won’t be the last. But I know that with time, it will phase out. I faced a lot of stigmatisation on my street.
Can you recall specific instances?
Yes. When I was symptomatic, because I had bushy hair, I went to a salon to have a haircut. Somebody who knew what happened to my fiancée ran away from the salon. Also, I went somewhere to buy toothpaste and the mallam (Hausa man) refused to sell to me. He said he was not selling. I said but you have toothpaste, he said yes, but that he was not selling. And where I worked as a marketing officer, it happened. I got a job this same month Justina got a job at the hospital (where Patrick Sawyer visited). Mine was an oil and gas company. Indirectly, I experienced it there. I no longer work there.
Were you told to stop coming?
They did it indirectly. It will be shameful for me to go back there. After I left the isolation centre, I said no, I won’t go back there. God has a reason for everything. A lot of people have told me to protest but I said no. For God to bring me out of this, He has very big plans for my life. The communication was no longer there; I was calling (the office) and they stopped picking my calls. So I didn’t bother to go to the office. It got to an extent that even after I came out, my mum travelled to the east (my hometown) for an August meeting and as soon as she got to the venue, everyone ran away. They were like, since your son had Ebola, then you will definitely have Ebola. That was the extent of the stigmatisation.