01:48 - Source: CNN
This team picks up Ebola's dead

Story highlights

Liberians with other ailments trapped by Ebola crisis

Hospitals are too busy fighting Ebola or closed because of fears of it

Woman with blood pressure problems dies without medical attention

Monrovia, Liberia CNN —  

About 10 days ago, Lusa Khanneh took ill, but not with Ebola.

Her son, Saymon Kamara, says his mother was having violent convulsions. Those aren’t a typical symptom of Ebola; they’re a complication of high blood pressure, which Kanneh had suffered from for years.

Kamara drove his mother to Redemption Hospital, near their home in the West Point slums of Monrovia. Doctors had given her treatment there before, and he hoped to get it again.

But Redemption, like so many hospitals in Liberia, is closed or partially closed out of fear that Ebola patients will infect health care workers. It’s a fear based in reality: In Liberia, more than 170 health care workers have contracted the disease and 83 have died of it.

Next, Kamara drove to ELWA Hospital, but learned it only takes Ebola patients. Then he drove his mother to JFK Hospital, but it was overwhelmed and accepting only pregnant women, children and Ebola patients.

Cooper Hospital was his last chance.

Kamara and his mother waited outside. By now she was convulsing every 15 minutes, “as if someone had put a spell on her,” he says. Her breathing was rapid and shallow.

A doctor came out – a tall man, Kamara remembers. He pointed to a small blood stain on his mother’s shirt. He wanted to know what it was from.

Kamara explained that during one of her seizures his mother had bit her tongue and bled a little. But he could tell the doctor was worried she had Ebola, because bleeding is one of the symptoms. He turned Kanneh away.

Lusa Khanneh had run out of options. The only place her son could take her was home. Four days later, on September 19, she died.

Saymon Kamara is angry.

“If the hospitals were open, she wouldn’t have died,” he says. “This wasn’t her time to go.”

No contact: Life inside the Ebola outbreak

There’s no question that countless Liberians are dying because of Ebola even when they don’t have it. There are few functioning hospitals or doctors’ offices. Health care services, weak before Ebola, barely exist; vaccination rates, for example, have plummeted.

“The primary care system here is basically shattered,” says Sarah Crowe, a spokeswoman for UNICEF who is working in Liberia. “It’s an outrage that children are dying of diseases, like measles, that are preventable and treatable.”

Even after death, Ebola – a disease her son says she never had – haunted Kanneh.

Her family heard on the radio that no one should touch a cadaver, no matter what the cause of death. Call in, the announcer on the radio said, and a team from Dead Body Management will come for the body.

It’s simply impractical to test every cadaver for Ebola and sort out who died of what before burial. It would dangerously delay the burial to do so, and would take up too many resources.

So the Kanneh family did as they were instructed. On Saturday, the day after her death, a team of five men in white suits, covered head to toe, sprayed Lusa Khanneh’s body with chlorine and buried her.

Kanneh didn’t receive the burial she would have wanted as a devout Muslim. Her family didn’t wash her body. They didn’t carry her to the mosque and pray over her. They didn’t bury her themselves.

“These guys who buried her – I don’t know these guys,” Kamara says, referring to the men in the white suits with the chlorine spray. “I expected my family to bury her, but now strangers have buried her.”

But he says he understands.

“I have to accept this because this is the kind of country I live in and the kind of country my mother died in,” he says. “I have to accept it with a heavy heart.”

CNN’s John Bonifield, Orlando Ruiz, and Orlind Cooper contributed to this story.