Ashoka Mukpo: Ebola ‘more intense than anything’

Updated 4:21 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
04:06 - Source: CNN
Cameraman describes fight against Ebola

Story highlights

Ashoka Mukpo fell ill in Liberia in early October, after being hired by NBC

He recalls bleeding, having a high fever, having "absolutely no energy"

Mukpo is now Ebola-free after being treated at Nebraska Medical Center

Watch Ashoka Mukpo’s interview with Don Lemon at 10 p.m. ET on CNN.

(CNN) —  

Ashoka Mukpo had seen the horrible things Ebola can do.

A little boy dying in a car’s back seat. An old woman writhing in the street. Desperate people waiting at home for ambulances that never came.

The suffering they experienced was unimaginable – until he felt it himself.

Mukpo was a day into working in Liberia as a freelance cameraman for NBC when he first fell ill from what turned out to be Ebola. He tested positive for the virus in that West African country, before being flown to Nebraska Medical Center back in the United States.

He suffered, but survived. After it all, he finally fully grasped the plight of those he’d seen outside treatment centers in Liberia, too weak to move.

“They were just laying out on the ground, in the gravel, in the sun, and I used to look at them and say, ‘My God, you can’t sit up at least?’” Mukpo told CNN’s Don Lemon on Wednesday from his native Rhode Island.

“And then once I was sick, I completely understood. You just have absolutely no energy. To walk three feet feels like you just ran a marathon.”

Like anyone else, Mukpo had been sick before. And this time around, he had body aches, chills and a fever up to 104 degrees.

“But (the symptoms) were so pronounced and so much more intense than anything that you’re likely to get with the flu,” he said. “(Ebola) is definitely different.”

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A Buddhist, an activist, a journalist

Thankfully, things are different now for Mukpo.

On October 21, he tweeted that he’d tested negative for Ebola for three straight days. That meant he could finally leave the hospital and go home.

“The knowledge that there’s no more virus in my blood is a profound relief,” Mukpo wrote. “I’m so lucky. Wish everyone who got sick could feel this.”

For a 33-year-old, Mukpo has seen a lot.

A graduate of Georgetown and the London School of Economics, he worked for years with the advocacy group, Human Rights Watch. He’s a proud Buddhist who, according to a 2009 documentary, took the honorary title among Tibetan Buddhists of Tulku.

“I still think I can be of some kind of benefit to somebody,” he said then. “And that’s, I think, what being a Buddhist is about.”

Mukpo had an especially deep connection with Liberia, having worked for two years there for the nonprofit Sustainable Development Institute. So when the Ebola crisis hit there and in two neighboring West African nations, he felt compelled to act.

“He … really made a strong connection to the Liberian people, and … wanted to go back and see if he could make a difference,” his father, Dr. Mitchell Levy, said earlier this month.

His contributions in spreading Liberians’ stories date back to July, in a piece for VICE News entitled, “Why don’t West Africans believe Ebola is real?” More stories for that news organization and others, including Al-Jazeera, followed through September 30, when he was hired by NBC.

Lauds health care workers as ‘heroes’

The next day, Mukpo started feeling achy and tired, after which he put himself under quarantine. Tests at a Doctors Without Borders facility the next day confirmed the worst: that he had Ebola. His parents said they believe he got the disease while cleaning out a car in Liberia where someone had gotten sick.

Mukpo recalled a Doctors Without Borders doctor putting an IV in his arm in Africa, then bleeding profusely “because Ebola thins your blood out.”

“They’re so brave and such heroes,” he said of this and other health care workers who tended for him. “I could see that they were afraid, but they were willing to take that risk for me to … help me survive.”

More help came with his arrival, days later, in the United States.

He went straight into strict isolation, unable to see his family and with all those helping him dressed head-to-toe in protective gear.

Asked by CNN’s Lemon about not having human contact while in treatment, Mukpo said he didn’t know what that “would have done for me at that point.”

“I needed my own strength so much that, to be touched and cared for, I’m not even sure I would have wanted that,” he said. “… I was so scared and sick that I think I needed to be in some kind of bubble.”

Mukpo got more help from someone who’d suffered like him: Dr. Kent Brantly, an American doctor who also contracted Ebola in Liberia. A day after getting a blood transfusion from Brantly, Mukpo said he “started to feel better” with less of a headache and more energy.

Now, Mukpo wants to return the favor to someone else with Ebola.

“I can’t give blood for another two weeks, I think,” he said, explaining that his antibody count isn’t strong enough yet to be useful. “But I want to say that Kent Brantly is a hero of mine for what he did…

“I hope that, when my number gets called, that I have that same courage.”

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