My final moments with the late Liberian Journalist, Herbert Johnson
Reflection and Tribute, By Moses D. Sandy – “Moses, it will be tough and costly for the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA) to transport my body from America to Liberia if, I die here. Your will have to pay for the casket and fly my body home. That’s too much money to spend. It is better that I go back to Liberia and die there. My wife and children are there and they will give me the needed moral support.”
These were the heart wrenching words of our fallen professional colleague, brother, and countryman, Herbert Johnson when he confided in me at the Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital located in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania after days of indecisiveness whether, or not to return to his native Liberia in the wake of his terminal illness, liver cancer.
Then, doctors at the hospital had given him up due to the severity of the disease. True to his words, Mr. Johnson expired on Sunday, May 17, 2015 at the John F. Kennedy (JFK) Medical Center in Monrovia, Liberia, 16 days after his return to the country. According to his wife, Mrs. Sylvia Tamba Johnson, he died after his health condition declined. Herbert was 43 years old and a father of two.
The late Journalist’s decision to leave the US, a country known for first class medical treatment and return to Liberia where the health care system is decimated, did not come by easily. It was a difficult one for him and all those that participated in the process. It was a conundrum; an insolvable problem. It took several days of tossing and uncertainty because everyone wanted the best for him and his family.
We: ALJA executives, medical doctors, friends, the deceased and his family, and friends spent several days and nights pondering via phone calls and face to face contacts on the pros and cons of him returning to Liberia under such condition.
The task at hand was further compounded by the race against time. As per medical advice, Herbert had only a week to depart the US for Liberia if he chooses to go back there, because any delay would had prevented him from traveling.
He handled the situation with pride and dignity. He did not give up hope.
Finally, an informed decision with Herbert and his wife Sylvia’s inputs was made. Medically, most of us including religious leaders and the fallen journalist knew that his condition was worst and his days for survival were numbered; he had 45 days to live as predicted by his medical team. Only prayers with the intervention of the Lord could had change the course of things.
Herbert knew that his demise was imminent and it was just a matter of time, but he was not troubled. He handled the situation with pride and dignity. He did not give up hope. He was resilient, cheerful, and psychologically balanced. He showed no sign of self-pity.
He was always calmed and collected whenever visitors, including myself went to the hospital to see him. He was alert and deeply involved in every discussion concerning his treatment and return to Liberia. In the month of April 2015, while en-route to the Philadelphia International Airport for departure to Liberia when we drove together from his nephew, Wilbert Folley’s residence in Upper-Darby, where he stayed briefly before returning home, Herbert told me and his friend, Abu Kamara, Minister Counselor for Press and Public Affairs at the Permanent Mission of Liberia at the UN, who had traveled from New York to see him off that, his return home was “Not permanent.”
“Gentlemen,” he pontificated, “I will be back soon. When I go, I will take my treatment and come back when my health improves.” He was in good spirit although he had lost considerable amount of weight. Herbert’s tenacity in the wake of his health challenges won him admiration from several individuals including journalists and the Good Samaritan, who paid for him and his escort travel tickets to Liberia. Herbert was not a weakling. He was strong and upbeat; he knew what he wanted.
Call for Help
It was on a Tuesday morning on April 21, 2015, at approximately 19:00 (GMT), or 7:00A.M. (Eastern Time) in the US when my cellular phone rang. I had just walked through the main entrance of my Delaware residence after dropping my 14 years old daughter off at her school bus stop. When I answered the phone, it was Herbert Johnson, the man we now refer to as the late on the other side of the line.
I said good morning Herbert. He responded, good morning Moses. Then, he raised his voice and said with urgency “My man, I need your help. I am very sick and have been admitted at the Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in Lansdowne for treatment. I have been here since Monday, April 20, 2015. Doctors here say I have liver cancer and they can’t help me. Moses, you need to come. I want to see you.” As he spoke, I listened keenly. After he finished talking, I expressed sympathy for his illness and tried to give him an excuse that I could not make it to the hospital that day due to other pre-arranged family matters. However, I promised to visit him on Wednesday, but Herbert could not take a no for an answer.
He was adamant. “Moses, you need to come. I want to see you. If you don’t come today, I am not sure of you meeting me alive when you come here tomorrow. I may not be alive because the doctors have already given me up.” He continued, “I can die any time. I left my family in Liberia and came to this country in search of better life for us, but look at what is happening to me now. I am dying.”
As I listened, I heard him sobbing on the other side of the line. His cry touched me emotionally. I pitied his condition and the agony he was experiencing. After a moment of silence, I reassured him that despite the medical prognosis, he still had a chance to live. I told him the Almighty God was in control and promised to visit him the same day. He asked, “Will you come today?” I responded in the affirmative; Yes, I will. I will also, let our colleagues in ALJA know about your situation before coming.
Prior to resettling in the US nearly 15 years ago, Herbert and I were mere acquaintances in the Liberian media. Then, I worked for the state owned Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS) as Editor-in-Chief while he worked in the independent print media as a reporter. Occasionally, we bumped into each other at news conferences and other public functions. When he arrived in the US in January of this year, he reached out to me via telephone and our relationship rekindled. Since then, we maintained occasional phone calls.
Herbert’s insistence on seeing me at his hospital bedside was predicated on the fact that as Acting Chairman of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA) and a career social worker, he knew ALJA and I could had been a significant help to him during his difficult moment.
As promised, Mr. Gardea V. Woodson, ALJA Acting Secretary General and I showed-up at the hospital that evening for an initial visit with our fallen brother. When we entered his room, Herbert was resting in bed. Also, in the room was his nephew, Wilbert Folley. Although I had not seen Herbert in person for almost 15 years since my migration to the US, when he saw us, he immediately recognized me and smiled broadly. He called my name and asked, “Moses, how are you guys? I thought you were not coming. My man, here I am. I have been here since Monday. I need your help in telling my story to our colleagues here and back home. Please let them know that I am seriously sick,” he pleaded.
He said he was driven to the hospital on Monday, April 21, 2015, by ALJA member James Sipley formerly of LBS when his health situation became critical after few days of sickness at home. Upon arrival at the hospital, he explained, “I was examined and diagnosed with liver cancer. The doctors here told me that I had Hepatitis-B and it progressed into liver cancer.” He reported because of the complication he had difficulty with digestion and bowl movement. He said the doctors also informed him that the liver cancer was at an advance level and he had an over grown tumor in his stomach.
“They also told me that because of the chronic nature of the disease the hospital cannot help me. So they gave me up,” he said with a stone face. After the briefing, Mr. Woodson and I on behalf of the ALJA interim leadership and the Association’s membership sympathized with him. “Rest assured ALJA will be by your bedside during this difficult moment. We will also, tell your story as requested,” we said in separate statements. While at the hospital, we were later joined by journalist James Sipley, who had gone there too to check on him.
Beginning April 21, 2015, Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital literally became a second home for most ALJA members, who live in the Tri-State region (Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey). We frequented the hospital and spent long hours with Herbert while at the same time coordinating and mobilizing material and financial assistances for his care and safe return home. We stuck around him until Wednesday, April 29, 2015, when he was discharged.
Awareness Campaign & fundraiser
As promised, telling Mr. Johnson’s sad story and mobilizing financial support for his return to Liberia, became a full time commitment for us. We utilized every medium of communication (Facebook, text messaging, telephone calls, e-mails, and radio) in taking his case to the people. According to him, he received 80 messages including texts and phone calls when the news of his sickness was initially posted on Facebook on the night of April 21, 2015. As a result of the publicity, some members of the Liberian clergy in the US visited him at the hospital to offer prayers for his cure.
We also, devoted time to the planning and hosting of meetings and teleconferences for the mobilization of financial support. We reached out to several individuals in the US including one of Liberia’s eminent sons, who was visiting the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the time to solicit assistance for our colleague’s return home.
Fortunately, the gentleman granted us audience and consented to visit the ailing Journalist at the hospital. At the hospital, he and his entourage met with Herbert and after listening to his story, he consented to underwrite the air tickets for him and his escort trip to Liberia. The cost of the two round trip tickets was put at approximately US $5,000.00.
Zenith of Profession
Herbert died young, but by Liberian standard, he was an accomplished journalist. He reached the apex of his journalism career. He rose through the rank and file of the profession; he worked for others and he was also an employer. He was Managing Editor of the Monrovia based independent Option Newspaper. He was also, former Legislative Media Consultant to former Senate Pro-tempore, Clestus Wotorson. Senator Wotorson represented Grand Kru County in the Liberian Senate.
He also had a stint at the Liberia Telecommunication Authority (LTA). He worked in the agency’s Communications Department. Additionally, the deceased worked for several other Liberian newspapers including the defunct Patriot Newspaper as reporter. Herbert’s death is a significant loss not only to his immediate family, friends, and relatives, but to Liberian journalism as a whole. It is a huge forfeiture to ALJA and other well-meaning Liberians, who worked tirelessly for his up keep during his illness.
Although we are hurt, the Almighty God knows why he had to go so early. Herbert, let me say again, God knows why you left us so early, but buddy rest in peace. You fought a good fight; you left an indelible mark in the annals of Liberian journalism. We: the ALJA family, your widow, Mrs. Sylvia Tamba Johnson and children, friends, relatives, and well-wishers take solace in the good and memorable time spent together. Until we all meet again, may your soul and those of the faithfully departed rest in perpetual peace.