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Mr. Mambia Goes To Washington: To Honor His Sister, Who Died Of Ebola

Tarkpor Mambia in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. He says he "literally froze" during his first American winter in 2013, but is getting used to the cold weather. Ryan Kellman/NPR hide caption

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Ryan Kellman/NPR

Tarkpor Mambia in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. He says he "literally froze" during his first American winter in 2013, but is getting used to the cold weather.

Ryan Kellman/NPR

When he first got word of an Ebola outbreak in his home country of Liberia last March, Tarkpor Mambia didn't take the news too seriously.

He was talking to his sister Grace, 28, on the phone. She was about to finish nursing school in the inland Liberian town of Gbarnga. Mambia lives with his brother in Massachusetts, where he studies business at Salem State University.

Grace told him she hadn't tended to any Ebola patients but expected to soon. She was worried about an epidemic.

"We in the outside world didn't want to believe it," says Mambia. "My sister knew this was imminent."

Even so, he wasn't too concerned about Grace. She hadn't even graduated. But by the time she was ready to practice, in August, Ebola had swept across Liberia. Grace took her first job, caring for Ebola patients in a Doctors Without Borders facility.

Some nurses, brand new to the job, would have backed away from such an assignment. Not Grace, he says. She wanted to work with Liberia's neediest patients.

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"Every time we would talk," Mambia says, "I would be like, 'Be careful.' "

Grace cared for patients in Monrovia through the fall. Mambia continued with his studies in Massachusetts.

Then, in early December, one of his cousins called: Grace had contracted Ebola and died within five days. Mambia struggled to absorb what he was hearing.

"You don't know what to do, what to think," he says.

Just one year apart, the siblings had always been close. He learned that Grace had been buried in a cemetery for health care workers outside of Monrovia. Mambia couldn't travel to Liberia for her funeral.

He grieved from afar. But not in the way many people would.

He decided to lobby for more U.S. funding for global health initiatives — including support for front-line health workers like Grace. Within a few days, he'd called his contact at Results, a global anti-poverty group he'd volunteered at, and said he wanted to go to Washington.

"You just have to keep it strong, keep the faith and keep moving," he says.

So last week he came to Capitol Hill, where he met with Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member of the Africa and global health subcommittee on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Mambia talked not only about the need for more aid to fight Ebola but also to provide vaccines for various diseases and affordable treatment for malaria. He also had another goal: putting a face on global health issues.

He wants to influence policymakers whose funding decisions affect the day-to-day lives of people like his family — people across the world whom they rarely get to meet.

Mambia felt the trip to Washington was a success. He hoped he'd given U.S. policymakers a chance to "feel what someone in West Africa is feeling."

His thoughts as he left for Massachusetts turned to his own family.

First, his youngest sister, Pearl. At 18, she's about to start college and is thinking about going into medicine, too. If global efforts to fight epidemics like Ebola can be better funded, he says, she and the next generation of health care workers will be safer.

And then Grace, whom he calls his hero.

"I think my sister would be pretty happy if the U.S. Congress, those people in authority, can give a listening ear and prevent what happened to her from happening to other people."