Tuesday, Jul 26, 2016
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Family of Ebola victim mourns his loss

Maumee residents praise Liberian doctor who stayed behind

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    Jenny Brisbane, center, mourns the death of husband Dr. Samuel Brisbane with daughters Marie Brisbane, left, and Baendu Brisbane-Williams in Maumee.

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Jenny Brisbane, center, mourns the death of husband Dr. Samuel Brisbane with daughters Marie Brisbane, left, and Baendu Brisbane-Williams in Maumee.

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Jenny Brisbane spoke weekly on the telephone with her husband, a doctor in Liberia who stayed behind to help those injured in the country’s civil war when his family fled to safety about 24 years ago.

The Maumee woman knew from those long-distance calls that Dr. Samuel Brisbane, whom she had met while working at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Medical Center in Monrovia, had built a retirement home on a farm near Liberia’s capital city.

He planned for her to join him there one day.

But the family — torn apart by war years ago and still separated because of the doctor’s devotion to his medical work in Liberia — will not be reunited.

He died Saturday, the first Liberian doctor to succumb to an Ebola outbreak that has devastated West Africa. His family said he was buried the same day on his farmland.

Ms. Brisbane said she talked to him on July 21.

Two days later, his Toledo-area family learned he had fallen ill. Then they found out he had been taken to a center where patients with the highly contagious disease are treated. For the next few days, his health was up and down, but glimmers of hope were extinguished when they learned of his death.

His daughter — Baendu Brisbane-Williams of Toledo, who came here with her mother, siblings, and other family members — said her father, 74, “had a full life.” But his sudden death gave the family no closure and no chance to say good-bye.

“That was the hardest part,” said Ms. Brisbane-Williams, an emergency room nurse at ProMedica Toledo Hospital.

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The family was told he would be buried in a mass grave with other Ebola victims in an attempt to contain the virus. The disease spreads from human-to-human transmission and has a fatality rate of up to 90 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

Ms. Brisbane-Williams said her half-brother who lives in Liberia was able to help coordinate their father’s quick interment.

Liberian custom calls for her mother to wear black clothing for a year, and the family has consoled themselves with memories of Dr. Brisbane, whom they last saw when he made short visits to Toledo in 1995 and 1997.

“It was really a great loss,” said Ms. Brisbane-Williams of her father’s death, which made international headlines.

“We’re grieving, but I don’t think there will never be another Dr. Brisbane for Liberia; he was that huge.”

He earned the nickname “iron” for his fearlessness, she said. In later years, back problems prompted him to sometimes provide medical care from a wheelchair.

Dr. Brisbane was working at a hospital in Harbel, site of Firestone’s rubber plantation, when the bloody conflict forced his family to leave.

“I was planting flowers around the house, and he came. He said, ‘Take the kids and run,’ ” Ms. Brisbane said. “He said, ‘The rebels are coming. They are killing people along the road.’ ”

The refugees made their way to Sierra Leone and finally to Toledo, where they were welcomed by a relative. For a while, they believed Dr. Brisbane was dead, though he was spared because of his medical skills.

Marie Brisbane, a phlebotomist in Southfield, Mich., was about 20 years old when she left Liberia and remembers how her father made sure his children were ready for school every morning and that they finished their homework.

His attitude was consistently joyous and made sure they were happy, she said.

From afar, Dr. Brisbane monitored his wife’s medical care — calling after every appointment when she was diagnosed in 2012 with cancer, now in remission — and made plans to reunite.

His death reminded Ms. Brisbane-Williams how much Americans have to be grateful for. Those in Liberia don’t have easy access to basic medical equipment and supplies, and she’s working with colleagues to collect items to send to doctors treating Ebola victims.

Through all the struggles, Dr. Brisbane’s family said his conviction to help Liberians never wavered.

“He said that was his calling. He said … ‘We were OK on this side, but people needed him on that side,’ ” Ms. Brisbane said. “I missed him, and I worried about him, but he always would tell me … ‘I’m strong as a lion.’ ”

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.

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