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'Eric Can Live Forever In My Mind': Family Honors Dallas Ebola Victim On His Birthday

Family members are remembering Thomas Eric Duncan this week -- Tuesday would have been the 43rd birthday of the Ebola victim who died this fall in Dallas. KERA recently traveled to North Carolina to visit the family of the Liberian national. 

On Monday, we aired a story featuring Duncan's mother and sister, who over the years left Liberia, eventually settling near Charlotte, North Carolina. On Tuesday, we aired a story about Josephus Weeks, the nephew who says he was raised as Duncan’s “twin brother.”

Josephus Weeks on Duncan: "We've Been Together Since Birth" 

On the day I meet Josephus Weeks, he’s wearing jeans and a blue hoodie, with the words "Combatives Instructor." The U.S. Army Veteran of Iraq stands 5-feet-9-inches, and is visibly somber.

“This is the house, the place Eric and I were supposed to stay,” he said.

We’re in a two-story townhouse with two bedrooms and a back porch that opens up to a small pond. 

“Unfortunately, we talked about this, and he was excited to come here,” Weeks said. “He couldn’t wait to make it here, but it didn’t happen. ... But I’ll show you around.”

Credit Courtesy of the Duncan family
Thomas Eric Duncan playing with his boom box in Liberia.

  Weeks is actually the nephew of Thomas Eric Duncan. His mother was a teenager when she gave birth in Liberia, so Weeks was raised by his grandmother, who was then pregnant with Duncan.     

“We’ve been together since birth,” he said. “Everyone thought we were twin brothers. And then we went to my mother, and we lived there until we were adults.”

Weeks became the big brother, he says, because Duncan was the sensitive, non-violent one.

“I was the one who was in fights, always picking up fights for him,” he said. “Somebody mess with him, he would always come running back to get his big brother ... me.”

They parted 22 years ago, when the civil war in Liberia displaced tens of thousands of families. They stayed in constant touch over the years, and when Duncan was hospitalized in Dallas, Weeks was the family spokesman. Sitting in a bedroom that he calls "Eric’s Room," he says the two were supposed to grow old together.

“Man, he was my road dog,” Weeks said. “We played soccer together. We played basketball together. The girls liked him. He had pretty eyes. He had good hair. I didn’t. ... He’s a very kind person, very clean, very neat. We were going to sit out here, watch the lake, discuss our strategy to make our business, to support our kids.”

Like Duncan, Weeks is a single dad. Duncan leaves behind two boys in the United States, and two girls in West Africa; each has a different mom. Weeks won’t say how many kids he has, only that he’s now the father to all of them, including Duncan’s four. 

“The foundation is him,” he said. “So just like I took care of him, I want to take care of this foundation.”

He’s referring to a memorial fund that Texas Health Resources has established as part of a confidential settlement with Duncan’s family. Duncan was treated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, where he died. Weeks says he wants to help raise money to build a hospital in Liberia for Ebola patients.   

“I have to get this foundation going so at least Eric can live forever in my mind," Weeks said. "So even after I’m dead and gone, his kids can still look at a facility or structure with his name on it, that he’s still here, and their father didn’t die in vain."

So why is he now working with the hospital, when he was so critical after Duncan’s death?

“The doctors should have done their job, and should have done it the right way,” Weeks said. “And that’s why I was trying to push them to do it. They accepted the fact that they made mistakes. So they have an opportunity to make it right, and if they want to work with me as the family, to go ahead and do something, make this whole situation better, of course I will work with them, give them a second chance, to prove that they are actually competent people … good people, and honorable people. How else can you prove that?”

Weeks says he and his family held a private ceremony for his brother earlier today, in honor of what would have been his 43rd birthday. 

Credit Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News
Nowai Gartay Korkoyah, Thomas Eric Duncan's mother, needles a traditional Liberian cloth called a lapa.

A Mother Remembers Her Son: "He Was So Good"

This is the first of two stories about a Liberian national who died from Ebola in Dallas.  

The KERA Radio Story.

If Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, had survived, he’d be celebrating his 43rd birthday Tuesday with family in North Carolina.

“He was born on Friday, 8 a.m. sharp, right in my living room,” said his mother, Nowai Gartay Korkoyah. 

It was 1971, on her 3-acre farm, in northeast Liberia. Twenty years later, she says her baby was all grown-up, and managed to deliver to the family hard-to-get supplies during that country’s civil war.  

“No clothes, no bucket, no salt, no soap,” she said. “He buy bucket, he buy soap, he bought clothes and send it to us. ... He was so good. He was so good.”

The civil war displaced nearly half a million people, including Korkoyah’s family, first to the Ivory Coast, then to Ghana. In 1990, her daughter was granted political asylum in the U.S.

Now, they live just outside Charlotte.

Another day she’ll never forget? The moment she was told about her son’s death in Dallas, when Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital officials asked her to sit down.

“I said, 'you want to tell me the truth; I can’t see Eric,'” Korkoyah said. “No Eric. I [am] confused. I don’t know what to do. My son. Let his soul rest in peace.”

Credit Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News
Mai Wureh, Thomas Eric Duncan's sister, says it's been a nightmare for her and her family.

  Mai Wureh, Duncan’s sister, says this has been a nightmare for her and her family.  

“Diagnosed in America?” she said. “People came here sick, and they survived. I don’t think he should have died. No, not from Ebola.”

She’s a registered nurse in Charlotte. It was her suggestion that Duncan first go to the emergency room, fearing malaria or typhoid fever, known diseases in Liberia. But Texas Health Presbyterian sent her brother home, even when records showed a 103-degree fever and travel from West Africa.

“That was a red flag,” Wureh said. “I would have keep him there and do more tests. So I was concerned. I kept calling. I said maybe you need to go back to that hospital.”

He did, two days later, and was correctly diagnosed with Ebola.

Duncan’s sister says she still has questions about her brother’s care, and why he died when eight other Ebola patients in the U.S. survived. On Oct. 4, Duncan received his first dose of an experimental drug.

“On the 7th, the report we got was great,” she said. “I went home with high hopes. My mom she hadn’t eaten for days; she was able to eat a full meal. She told her son he was going to make it. I thought he was going to make it, too.”

But her brother died the next morning, without a single family member by his side.

“My brother was a compassionate person,” Wureh said. “I never saw him mad. Never. He was a family person, loved everyone. That’s why it hurt so bad.”  

After the tears, occasionally the anger comes back, especially when she thinks about people who called her brother a liar or a criminal.

“Why would he come here with Ebola to infect people?” she said. “To infect his mom, to infect his children, to infect them? I just want to praise God because I’m telling you, there’s a lot of anger.”

The family reached a confidential settlement with the hospital a month after Duncan was cremated. Wureh says her mother didn’t care.

“She just wants her son back,” she said. “What can we do? We have to forgive and move on.”

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.