One year ago, Patrick Sawyer was home in suburban Minneapolis celebrating his native Liberia’s Independence Day with his family and friends. The barrel-chested Sawyer had a larger-than-life presence, entering rooms by shaking everyone’s hands and waving his arms to emphasize a point.
“He was a little over the top, but for all the right reasons,” recalled friend Abdullah Kiatamba, who met Sawyer in 2008 and worked with him to organize last year’s Independence Day festivities in Minneapolis.
Sawyer, the first American victim to succumb to the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, was a passionate man whose unexpected death Friday has shaken the local Liberian community. The 40-year-old had been living in Liberia since 2008, working as a consultant for the government’s Ministry of Finance while his wife raised their young children in Coon Rapids, Minnesota.
On July 20, Sawyer collapsed after getting off an Arik Air flight from Liberia to Lagos, Nigeria, where he was attending a conference. He was planning a visit to Coon Rapids next month to see his wife and his three daughters: Bella, 1, Mia, 4, and Eva 5.
“He was working in Liberia, but he considered Minnesota home,” Kiatamba told NBC News. “His closet friends were here. His family was here.”
Sawyer’s wife, Decontee, said her husband, a naturalized American citizen, was a social butterfly who had a yearning to make a difference in his native Liberia, one of the poorest countries in the world.
“[His death has] hit everyone’s front door and they feel like they have lost a best friend and a brother, and they are awake now,” she told NBC affiliate KARE.
Sawyer was reportedly vomiting and suffered from diarrhea — symptoms of the virus — during his trip to Nigeria, which included stopovers in Ghana and Togo. He was quarantined in a Nigerian hospital until his death Friday.
Liberia has closed its borders to try and contain the outbreak of the highly infectious disease that has also put neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone on high alert. Nigerian authorities are trying to monitor the 59 people, including airline workers, who had come into contact with Sawyer during his flight.
Decontee Sawyer said she believes her husband contracted the virus from his sister. Friends told NBC News he had taken his sister to the hospital about two weeks before he had fallen ill. She later died from Ebola.
Health officials in Africa are being even more cautious about stemming the virus, given that Sawyer was able to board a plane and could have potentially introduced the disease to the largest city in Africa.
Two other Americans in Liberia have been diagnosed with Ebola, which has killed more than 660 people since February and has a 70 percent fatality rate. The condition of one of them, Dr. Kent Brantley, was “very serious” and worsening, colleagues told NBC News on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a memorial service for Sawyer is planned for Sept. 14 in Coon Rapids. Family and friends said Decontee Sawyer is “devastated” by the loss of her husband, whom she married in December 2008.
Her husband’s body was cremated, friends said, as a precaution to spreading the disease.
After the body is ravaged by Ebola, “there’s no opportunity to send home your husband,” Kiatamba said. “To lose a loved one like that, and now, you can’t even bury him — that’s heartbreaking for anyone.”
Stephanie Gosk of NBC News contributed to this report.
First published July 29 2014, 8:32 AM