PROVIDENCE — Ashoka Mukpo went for a half-hour walk Saturday, three days after leaving the Nebraska Medical Center, cured of the Ebola infection he had contracted while working as a freelance journalist in Liberia.
His legs felt a little heavier than normal and he felt no urge to resume jogging, but Mukpo, 33, said he’s about 75 percent restored to full health after experiencing the worst illness of his life.
“My health is getting much better as the days go by,” he said in an interview Saturday at his parents’ brick home on Providence’s East Side. “I’m actually feeling like maybe the recovery isn’t going to be as lengthy as I thought it would be.”
Mukpo expressed gratitude for the medical care he received in Nebraska and for the generosity of NBC News, which paid for his treatment even though he had started working for the company only 48 hours before he fell ill.
“It feels great to be home. It’s great to be with my family, it’s great to be with my loved ones,” he said. “I’m trying to start reestablishing a sense of normalcy.”
But his appreciation is tinged with sadness for the thousands of people in Liberia, a country he loves, who have not been so lucky. Mukpo had worked for two years as a researcher with a Liberian advocacy group and went back in early September with a newly purchased video camera to cover the Ebola outbreak. (That camera has since been autoclaved and dipped in bleach, which ruined it; it’s one of his few possessions that didn’t have to be incinerated.)
In Liberia, Mukpo witnessed “people in desperate, immediate need of medical attention who were turned away . . . pleading for help” because the hospitals were full. “It’s just an accident of birth,” Mukpo said, that he was flown to one of four specialized units in the United States.
When he was filming near sick patients in Liberia, Mukpo said, he wore gloves and booties, and carried a chlorine spray bottle that he used frequently. Trying to imagine how he became infected, he speculated: “I think I must have touched something and not chlorinated fast enough.”
He took his temperature twice a day, always with a pang of anxiety, but never really expecting to get ill. On the night he ran a fever, however, Mukpo knew it was almost surely Ebola because he had few other symptoms, just a mild backache.
“I was completely terrified, and I’m not ashamed to admit it,” he said.
His health quickly deteriorated overnight. By the time he got to a Doctors Without Borders treatment tent in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, he was starting to get chills and headaches. That Sunday night, Oct. 5, the State Department arranged for him to fly to the United States on a small jet with medical personnel and equipment. He was ensconced in the Nebraska hospital’s Biocontainment Unit before he became more seriously ill.
Ebola left him so weak that he slept 20 hours a day, curled up under the covers.
Sixteen days later, Mukpo was declared Ebola-free, and his father, Dr. Mitchell Levy, director of the medical intensive care unit at Rhode Island Hospital, came to meet him. and they flew back to Providence. He arrived home in the middle of the night to an embrace from his mother, Diana Mukpo, waiting outside the front door.
“I always knew he was going to survive,” Diana Mukpo said. “I just knew.”
“However,” she added, “it was a massive relief when we realized he was out of the woods.”
Levy said he is overcome by gratitude to the many friends and colleagues who sent notes of support and encouragement.
Now that he is well, Mukpo is disturbed by some of the reaction to the latest Ebola patient on US soil, Dr. Craig Spencer, who had been working with Ebola patients in Guinea and now is being treated at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Spencer’s case raised alarms because, before he ran a fever, he rode the subway, ate at a restaurant, and went bowling.
“I think we have a tendency in our country to become overwhelmed by fear,” he said. “There’s an extremely low likelihood that this doctor put anyone at risk.”
By working in Guinea, Spencer “risked himself to try to help those people,” Mukpo said. “That makes him as admirable a person as we can have in this country.”
The 21-day quarantine that three states have imposed on anyone traveling from Ebola-stricken areas are “political” decisions, he said, and these requirements will only make it more difficult for medical workers to travel to Africa and quash the epidemic at its source.
As for Mukpo’s future, he expects to be fully recovered in about a month and wants to get back to work at international advocacy of some kind.
He wants to write about his experiences — and is pitching the idea to editors.
Will he go back to Liberia? “Everyone asks me that,” he said. “I can’t imagine I’ll go too long without dropping in on Liberia. I have lifelong friends there.”