By HENRY OKONKWO
For Dennis Akagha, the experience of nearly dying just three years ago from the Ebola virus seems like a lifetime agony.
Akagha is one of the survivors of the dreaded Ebola virus disease (EVD). He contracted the virus from his late fiancée, Justina Ejelonu- a nurse, who alongside others like late Dr. Ameyo Stella Adadevoh, got infected from the late Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian man who brought the disease into Nigeria on July 20, 2014.
The incident has not only remained indelible in Akagha’s mind, it has also burnished his life.
“It is hard to believe all that really happened to me,” he said managing a smile. “The thought that I virtually walked out of the valley of death, and that I could have died of Ebola, changed my perception about life. And remembering the incident makes me sober.”
Akagha recalled how he refused to look back on hearing the news that his fiancée had contacted the Ebola virus.
“It was like a nightmare. We were couples looking forward to settling down to a bright future of happiness and love. Then Ebola came from nowhere, and shattered everything.
When I heard she’s been inflicted with Ebola, I couldn’t believe my ears. But I had to accept it. I just had to face it. My priority at the time was for her to live; I didn’t care much about myself. I needed her to survive. So, I prayed fervently for her. I didn’t know I had the virus too, because my symptoms hadn’t shown as at then. She was one of those that got direct contact with the index case (Sawyer) so hers came after 21 days later.
“Before she was confirmed to be suffering from Ebola, I was taking care of her at home. When she was later taken to the isolation ward, I was still going to the hospital to visit and pray for her to live. I knew and understood the risks I was exposing myself to, but I just needed her to survive. If you truly love somebody, love would conquer everything. Sadly, on the 14th of August 2014, she passed on. And four days after she died and was buried, I was picked up by government health operatives. I tested positive to the virus, and was immediately brought into the isolation ward.”
Survival and battle with stigma
For days in the isolation ward, Akagha watched the day crawl by, soaked in fear and delirium, pondering on stories of the many who did not survive the infection. However, like a miracle, Akagha was cured, and declared medically free from the Ebola virus. That should have been a big hurray moment for him, but things went awry when he came out to face a society that refused to embrace him, but rather chose to persist in seeing him as an Ebola patient and continued to stigmatize him.
For more than two years, he suffered emotional breakdown. “The Ebola memories haunted me for long,” he said. “It was not easy for me to move on, but I’ve learnt to let go. I faced loads of stigma from different quarters. Back then, I understood what it was for people to be afraid of me, because there was no adequate information for them not to stigmatize Ebola survivors. So, the stigmatization didn’t really weigh me down so much. At present, people don’t stigmatize me anymore. And in fact, I’m very proud to share my story anywhere I go. It gives me this responsibility that I want. Also the most important thing I’ve done for myself is to be around people who love and accept me. That helped me to let go.”
Before Nigeria fell under the yoke of the Ebola virus, the scourge was already ravaging neighbouring West African countries such as Guinea and Liberia. According to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, during the 2014 Ebola outbreak that plagued the region, over 28,000 cases were reported, and 11,323 persons died.
Search for new partner
Akagha, a young man in his mid-30s remains thankful for being among the survivors of the scourge. But since days rolled into weeks, weeks into months and months into years after that tragedy, finding another partner to settle with became no mean feat.
“After the sad death of my fiancée, for two years I couldn’t move on with my life. I noticed it was very difficult for me to settle into another relationship; not that I didn’t see good ladies to settle down with, but most times when they come my way, I don’t seem to see what I want, because I kept comparing them with my late fiancée. It was a problem for me. So, at that point I realized I was not totally healed emotionally, so I went to India to continue treatment. I was there for seven months till I got totally healed.
So, now I can tell you that I’ve gotten over the whole tragedy. It is a whole new beginning for me now, and I’m looking forward to settling down very soon,” Akagha said.
On starting his life afresh, this indigene of Owerri in Imo State seemingly found solace in the words of American politician- Robert Kennedy, that “Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live”. Those words seemed to have forged him. Hence, instead of brooding over his misfortune, Akagha dusted himself, and proudly parades himself as the advocate of stigmatized persons living with HIV/AIDS.
“When I was undergoing treatment in the isolation ward, I was praying and a lot of people were also praying for me to live. I believe God knows best in everything that happened. And I refused to ask God ‘why’. So, when I survived the virus I knew God has given me a second opportunity to do something spectacular and unique. That is why I want to give back to society because whatever I’m doing now I’m giving back to the society. Having gone through so much pains and terrifying situations, I don’t see myself an ordinary person anymore, because surviving the dreaded Ebola virus has transformed my life, and made me become an abnormally fearless person. People can’t understand why, after surviving a deadly virus like Ebola, I now go back to start working with people living with HIV-another deadly virus.
“But when they ask me why, I only answer them that I don’t see myself as an ordinary person anymore. Surviving Ebola fuels me to believe that I could do anything to give back to the society, because it is an opportunity God has given me to bless whoever comes my way.” Out of nine survivors of the dreaded disease in Nigeria, Akagha who has stuck out unarguably as the most vocal survivor of the EVD, has taken to being an advocate for others who face stigmatization. And today, Akagha’s organization – JustCare Development Initiative (JDI), has gone on to empower many, and embrace persons living with HIV.
According to him, the stigma he faced when he was battling EVD spurred him into starting the NGO related to stigmatization. “I asked myself that since I’ve been cured of Ebola, what about those suffering ailments that cannot be cured? How are they coping with the stigma that comes all year round.
“Presently we have youths from 18 to 35 years that are rejected and stigmatized because they are living with HIV. So, we are training them on various skills like bead -making, Ankara shoes and bag production, manufacturing, etc, because we found out that a lot of them are out of job and are feeling dejected and rejected. So, we try to steer them out of their depression, by training them in viable skills. We have a centre where we train them for some weeks. And after the training, we source funds for them to start up.” Akagha chided Nigerians over social insensitivity and lack of care and support shown to individuals suffering different ailments.
“No one can predict what would happen the next minutes” he admonished. “That is why I advise that whoever comes your way accept the person with love. I have come across lots of people that are living with HIV, but I never stigmatized them, because I realized that it could be me.
“So I advise Nigerians to go out and get informed. A lot of we, Nigerians, are not informed about people living with HIV/AIDS and so many other illnesses. It was when I went deeply into working with people living with HIV that I got to understand a lot of things. I learnt that couples living with HIV/AID can even get married and bring out children who don’t have HIV, and technology advancement is really affecting a lot of things. So people should get informed and know what is obtainable.”