A rap came on the hotel room door. It was our head of security — a big, sweating, burly man — who said our security detail had abandoned us because my cameraman, Ashoka Mukpo, had tested positive for Ebola. Three weeks before our arrival in Liberia, eight members of an Ebola outreach team, several journalists among them, had been hacked to death by machete-wielding villagers in Guinea, so local instability was on my mind. “You have 30 minutes to get out of here,” he said. “People have heard you’re the Americans with Ebola. They’re coming to get you.” Then he left.
I’d covered rough spots before but I had never been in a hot zone before we landed in Liberia in late September 2014. As my primary cameraman, David, said, “I can put a microphone on a terrorist who’s carrying an RPG, but in Liberia, I can’t touch anybody.” So we had the extra challenge of getting good audio and shooting compelling pictures. This is why we fired Ashoka.
A day after joining our team, but always traveling and working independently, Ashoka said, “I’m pretty tired.” He called later that evening. “I have a fever,” he said. He had malaria before and had an eerie feeling that this was Ebola.
By morning, Ashoka had made it to Doctors Without Borders and soon was airlifted to my alma mater, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where the heroic doctors and nurses saved his life. As surreal as this episode was, it was nothing compared to the nightmare I was about to experience upon coming home.
My team and I returned to my home in Princeton, NJ. I was aware of the chaos in Dallas, where a Liberian citizen who lied about his exposure would soon die of Ebola. But I thought that would be viewed as a malpractice case and not cause for national fear. I was wrong. We were asked by our health commissioner to avoid public places like churches and grocery stores. Otherwise we were allowed to leave our homes and be in the car. We were already taking our temperatures twice a day and checking in.
A woman saw me in my car and dialed 911. That call triggered the NJ State police and Gov. Chris Christie ordered a mandatory quarantine with a police officer stationed at the end of my driveway.
Suddenly I was the focal point for the public’s fears. I knew I had no risk of being infected. But scientific reason was hijacked by social media and cruel blog posts.
Ashoka and I remain in contact. He’s back in Liberia, and I’d go back tomorrow. I hope we don’t forget the suffering in West Africa. If there were anything I could say to the American public, it’s the importance to take a deep breath when these things happen. At the end of the day we are all just trying to do our best and we will see outbreaks in this country again.