‘We Can’t Wait on This’

Tamba Hali grew up in Liberia, where many family members still live, and he’s helping to combat the spread of Ebola in West Africa and beyond
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KANSAS CITY — Tamba Hali was born in Liberia in 1983. Ten years later, with the country in the midst of a civil war, his mother sent him to live with his father, a chemistry teacher in New Jersey. On Wednesday it didn’t take long for the Chiefs’ outside linebacker to acknowledge what his fate would have been had he never left West Africa.

“I know what would have happened,” said Hali, one of the NFL’s most feared pass rushers. “I would be dead. I would have gotten older and thought it would have been okay to join the army. I would have gone to war. So I’m really blessed to be in the position I’m in, and I don’t want to ever forget that.”

Hali, 30, has partnered with Heart to Heart International, a Kansas City-based humanitarian aid group, to build a 70-bed Ebola treatment unit in Liberia. The units cost $100,000-$150,000 to construct; Hali has donated $50,000, and though he is typically loathe to talk publicly about his charity work, he’s opening up about this cause because of the desperate need in West Africa. It’s affecting his family—his aunts, uncles and myriad cousins live there now.

The sad part about these treatment units—six are open in Liberia now, 21 more are planned—is that they’re most likely not places where victims will get better. They’re basically quarantine zones, where patients will go to die but won’t pass the virus on to others. The units will save lives, just not the lives of most who will be treated there.

Hali is typically reserved, and he’s not comfortable being a spokesman for anything. This is different, though. He understands that there are few famous Liberians in America, so he knows it’s up to him to speak up and try to get people to donate money and time to help contain Ebola, a viral disease for which there is no proven treatment. The fatality rate averages about 50%, according to the World Health Organization.

“We can’t really wait on this,” Hali said on Wednesday before the Chiefs hit the field to practice for Sunday’s game at San Diego. “I’d be the first one to tell you that every time I do charity work, I like to do it on the hush-hush and help people quietly. But there are some matters—like this—that are way bigger than me. All I can do is lend my help in ways I know I can.

“This is not a type of disease you can contract and then there are vaccines and it goes away. People are dying within weeks and within the first month of contact. So we have to act now.”

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Pictures of an Ebola treatment unit being built in Liberia, and Hali (lower right) speaking at Heart to Heart International’s press conference on Oct. 7 (Courtesy Heart to Heart International)

Pictures of an Ebola treatment unit being built in Liberia, and Hali (lower right) speaking at Heart to Heart International’s press conference on Oct. 7 (Courtesy Heart to Heart International)

This week, the WHO said there have been 4,447 deaths in West African countries due to Ebola, out of 8,914 total reported cases. But those cases will be multiplying, and quickly. By early December, WHO estimates there will be at least 5,000 new cases per week in Liberia and surrounding countries.

Jim Mitchum, the CEO of Heart to Heart International, spoke to me from Liberia on Tuesday. He’s there figuring where to build an Ebola treatment unit, and also using his contacts in the medical field to find healthcare volunteers to work in this unit and in others that will open in the coming months.

“About 27 units will be needed,” Mitchum said. “The best way I can describe them is sort of like a M*A*S*H unit—a lot of tarp, wood and heavy plastic. And it’s not just the cost of the units. A 70-bed unit needs 100 to 150 Liberian healthcare workers, plus 10 to 15 medical professionals from around the world to staff it. And it’s not just the cost of construction. The operating cost of each of these facilities is about $1 million per month.

“We shouldn’t live in fear,” Hali said. “We should always be optimistic and proactive in helping each other.”

“Obviously, this is a difficult thing to ask people to do. You’re asking people to work in an environment that would obviously make the average person afraid. You’re asking people to give six weeks of their time—a week for training, then five weeks in one of these treatment units—and then maybe more, depending on whether they may have to be quarantined before they return to their jobs. But the benefit of these units is monumental. They’ll prevent neighbors and family and friends from being infected. It’s a different way to save lives, but it definitely will save lives.”

Mitchum knows it’s a big ask for nurses and doctors: eight or nine weeks in a potentially dangerous environment, perhaps risking their lives. There is so much that remains unknown about the disease. It’s easy to think healthcare workers will be safe and be able to return home infection-free. But then you hear the stories of the two Dallas healthcare workers who tested positive for Ebola after caring for a Liberian patient who died in their hospital.

Hali’s appeal on behalf of Heart to Heart International is meaningful, Mitchum said, because it not only draws attention to the fundraising part, it also helps in raising the interest of nurses and doctors to go work on the front lines.

“First,” said Mitchum, “we didn’t ask Tamba for anything, and he came through with a sizable donation. And when he appeared at our announcement [Heart to Heart’s Kansas City-area press briefing on Oct. 7] he helped generate a lot of interest and helped to spread the word. Tamba’s roots in Liberia help put a personality to the disease so Americans can identify with the disease more clearly. He’s perhaps the most well known person from Liberia living here now. When we met, I could tell how important this is to him. The emotion in his voice, the feeling in his voice … He just wanted to know what he could do to help.”

“This is the kind of person Tamba is,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “When I came here I asked him to be more of a team leader, and he jumped right in. Tamba jumped right in to this too. He’s going to help save lives.”

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Liberia, Hali said, was a beautiful country when he was a child. “But most of my memory of Liberia is of war,” he added. “War and chaos. Being a third-world country with a lot of corruption going on, it’s tough for those people. I can only imagine it’s gotten worse after the civil war. There’s nothing really being done. It’s a beautiful country if there’s help for it. Right now, things have gone unstable.”

I asked Hali what he would say to people about going to Liberia to help stop the disease from spreading. He thought for a moment, then spoke slowly.

“I mean, it would be tough,” Hali said. “It would be tough for me if you asked me to go over in the middle of a crisis and help these people, with the chance of contracting the disease. But we shouldn’t live in fear. We should always be optimistic and proactive in helping each other. It’s a tough question, because something has to lay on your heart for you to want to help. There are people dying, and something has to touch you for you to want to go down there and help people.”

Hali said he was heartened to hear that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife donated $25 million to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Ebola response effort in West Africa.

“What would you say to Mark Zuckerberg about that?” I asked Hali as we parted Wednesday.

“Get your buddies to help too,” he said, and for the first time in our meeting, he laughed.

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