When Fear Becomes a Killer


There are lessons to be learnt in this life and even lessons in tragedy.  The lessons we draw from them can sometimes help save others.  A friend of mine recently lost someone she knew.  My friend had last seen the deceased, whom I will call Mary, at work only two days before her death.

Mary had done a full day’s work, only for her family to report her sick the next day.  During the night, Mary had suddenly developed acute stomach pains, vomiting and had the dreaded ‘F’ word; Fever, with a capital F!  In Sierra Leone, where the king of all dreaded words, Ebola, has raged the country in far too many months than its people wish to count,  the stakes sounded high.  The symptoms sounded dreadfully familiar.

Mary also lived in one of the recently Ebola hotspots of the capital, Freetown.  A fairly young lady with dependent kids, together with an extended family that consisted of an elderly father and mother, Mary was the family’s gold pot.

The nonstop campaigns in the country have created a massive awareness of Ebola.  Everyone knows about ‘Ebola’ whether they care for its existence or not.  Just over a year ago, Ebola was a word that was virtually unknown.  People have had Ebola drummed into their heads.  Radio, TV, billboards, megaphones, adverts, door to door..name it.  Like it not, sensitization does not care about people’s privacy, peace or quiet.

117, is Sierra Leone’s national hotline to call for any suspected symptoms.  Calling that number requires faith of sorts.  Ebola has created a stigma, for one.  Then, in the early days especially, when people called that number, many saw their loved ones carted away by masked men in space suits, never to see their relatives again.   Naturally, no one wants to ever to dial those digits.  There are some I guess that rather hold on to hope that their loved ones are only sick with Malaria or perhaps just feeling a little poorly.  Hope tells them that if they self medicate, the symptoms might go away.

I heard the family bought some Malaria drugs, oral rehydration tablets and goodness knows what.  For those in the West, this is shocking of course, that people can buy prescription drugs like one can buy sugar in the market.

Mary seemed to improve by the morning of the second day.  She emerged from her sick bed, greeting her family members and thanking them.  My friend even called her.  Mary told her that she was much better.  However, by evening ‘much better’ had changed to ‘much worse’.  My friend received a frantic phone call.  Mary had been delirious and was now unconscious.  My friend could hear the commotion and the wails in the background.

“Call 117!”

An hour later when my friend called back, Mary was dead, or certified so by her father.  She was no longer breathing.  The ambulance had not come either.

Now I am not about to criticise 117.  I was not there and neither was my friend.  Perhaps the hotline weighed the situation and thought they were probably dealing with a supposedly hopeless situation and had other alive cases to deal with.  If Mary had already stopped breathing and the nearest centre was some drive away, Mary probably had little hope if she happened to be faintly alive. Can’t say!  I am not certain the ambulances have the equipment to revive, neither am I sure if the ambulance come with paramedic.  And don’t quote me please!  Whoever the ambulance team are, these are people taking big risks themselves.  In poorly lit streets or even pitch black nights, one has to see what they are doing.

A life had tragically ended without warning.  Her traumatic kids were devastated.  The scourge of Ebola had come to their doorsteps.   Mary was very popular.  It would be only a matter of time before news would spread.

In the morning, the Ebola burial team came to take away her body.  I think all deaths are now treated as suspect cases.  Corpses are tested for the Ebola virus.  And all burials are conducted within 24 hours.  Her body was not even cold and was already being lowered in one of the fresh pre-dug graves awaiting occupancy.  How many people died like this?

For a moment, I became concerned about my friend’s welfare.  When last had you seen Mary?   Had you touched her when you did?  Are you sure?  Had she looked sick?  Had you seen her secretly throwing up?  But then I quickly regained composure.  This was not a time to fear.  My faith anyway did not allow it.  My faith said ‘fear has torment’.  I had to disable fear before it even took root.  Before fear got me speaking wrong but potent words.

The  most tragic part of the story is that when the results for Ebola from Mary’s corpse came back, it was…negative!   A relief for her immediate family and kids, and of course, my friend.  But then, what had Mary died of?  How had she died?  Had she self medicated a dangerous cocktail fearing she had Ebola?  Had she had a treatable sickness that could have been resolved had they dialled the dreaded 117?  Had Ebola claimed a life that under different circumstances never would have been?  These are questions we will never get the answers.

Someone once said ‘Fear is False Evidence Appearing Real’.  It seems clear that Mary had feared she had Ebola.  She had feared it while hoping it was something else.  In her case it was something else.  And the false evidence of her symptoms had become real to her.

And in the end had killed her.  May her soul rest in perfect peace.


Writer, columnist, coach and public speaker, Zoe A. Onah is the author of the bestseller and the award nominated book, DEFYING THE ODDS – One man’s struggle and victory over mental illness and his wife whose trust in God never failed. Zoe met her husband, Eze in the 14th year of his tumultuous journey with mental illness and 4 years later, he bounced back, and defied the odds with a clean medical bill of NO mental illness! Their organization, Defying Mental Illness – Put a Full Stop (DMI), is reaching out to those faced with mental health challenges to help them not only defy the disease, but also put a full stop to the stigma and discrimination.

(All proceeds from DMI is currently going towards donations to Ebola. Zoe is a trustee for Stop Ebola Now, a non profit organisation that partners with King’s College Ebola Partnership to fight Ebola).

Facebook Page: Stop Ebola Now








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