By Robin Meyerowitz
I thought nothing of it, when I started feeling slightly feverish at the beginning of December last year.
I had a few days of temperature swings and started losing my sense of taste and appetite. Panado, vitamin C, D and Zinc tablets did not seem to help, and I spent the weekend in bed.
On Monday 7 December, I booked a Covid test — the soonest I could get was Friday. By then I was feeling quite weak and ‘foggy’.
I spent another weekend resting, and on Monday 14th, I got the call telling me that I had tested positive. I had the Beta variant. The following day, I awoke to see a paramedic and a stretcher next to my bed. Thank goodness Julie, my housemate at the time, had made the call.
I ended up at Somerset Hospital, Covid floor 7, diagnosed with Covid pneumonia, acute renal failure and an elevated thyroid. I was not coughing at all.
On my back, with drips in both hands, nasal prongs as well as a mask for oxygen, I was one of six in a six-bed ward. The care was fantastic, considering that there was a shortage of bed linen, oxygen, and staff. One weekend, we had only three nurses looking after the 36 of us. I still had no appetite and lost about 30kg during my stay.
We were all too sick or ‘fogged out’ to talk among ourselves, managing only an occasional thumbs-up to each other. I was not mobile and was wearing a nappy. I usually had to wait hours for someone to change me. It was an incredibly helpless feeling. There was an amazing male nurse, from Limpopo who really took time and made sure I was not in distress.
I had no appetite nor energy, and had to force myself to eat. Breakfast was porridge, with a single raisin. A special treat was a little bakkie of custard, sometimes with a bit of canned fruit or melted jelly. No salads, only water to drink, and some weird warm concoction that tasted like a combination of coffee and tea. All our food was in sealed containers. Nothing came in. I (literally) dreamed of coke, spanspek and grapes.
The ward was dilapidated with only half the emergency bells working, so we had to shout if we needed a nurse. The door tended to stick, so the staff had to bash it to get in. We often heard helicopters delivering patients to the hospital. One day, we heard a siren and the intercom, telling the fire staff to go to their positions. Probably a false alarm, but I felt quite helpless.
My toughest time at Somerset was when there were four deaths on the ward in one week. Waking up with body bags on the beds around me was quite emotional. The man in the opposite bed was very restless during the night, and had fallen out of bed before passing away. That experience gave me extra mind-strength to get through the journey.
There was also a time when I woke in a bed covered with blood, as one of my drips had somehow failed.
As I was on 100% oxygen, my mouth dried up so much that I could not eat and only suck on a wet towel to get moisture. That was probably one of the worst experiences.
After a few weeks, my pneumonia was under control, my kidneys had started working again, and I was feeling slightly better.
Brackengate Field Hospital
Finally, my oxygen levels stabilised, and after a week’s wait for a bed at Brackengate Field Hospital, four of us left Somerset Hospital by ambulance in January, oxygen bottles clenched between our thighs. Brackengate was a new field hospital with 360 beds lined up in 24-bed aisles. I spent my first two days in the admissions ward, as all the regular wards were full.
After almost a month of oxygen rehab and then isolation, I needed to pass the mobility benchmark in order to go home. To my dismay, I was not able to stand and support my own weight. After being on my back for so long, I had to learn to walk again.
One day 16 people passed away. Their deaths were expected, due to comorbidities.
There were no windows, so we had no sense of time and weather. This really messes with your internal body clock!
Slowly, my appetite improved, and I was eating more regularly. I still dreamed of a green salad, spanspek, grapes, coke, and orange juice. When I was admitted to Brackengate, I mentioned this to a porter, and during his lunch hour he got me a punnet of grapes and a coke. The ward sister confiscated it, as nothing was allowed into the ward. However, when she left, the porter brought them back. I was like a child, eating under the bed covers and keeping an eye out for Florence Nightingale.
I became friendly with Leon, a new arrival in the bed next to me. By this time, after a week, I was off oxygen, but still bedridden and in a nappy. We encouraged each other to breathe and walk.
For my first sitting up session, Leon and I had ‘Dinner for Two’, facing each other on our beds, with a tray between us. No candles or roses, only our water and punnets of cottage pie. A guy across the room chipped in that he was looking forward to watermelon, so ‘Watermelon’ became his nickname.
Once off oxygen, I had to get mobile again. It’s the physiotherapist who discharges you, making sure that you can look after yourself. I had physio for ten days before I was mobile. My muscle mass had dropped to such an extent that, at first, I was unable to stand on my own. When I did, my heart rate shot up to 138bpm. It was a whole new experience learning to walk with a frame. Then I managed to walk the length of the hospital, 100m, on my own. The challenge was to walk to the wall, touch it, turn around and get back to bed. Turning around was literally a 10-point turn.
After I had shown the physiotherapist that I was ready to be discharged, I went in a wheelchair to have my first shower. I needed help to get up the two steps to the bathroom, to sit on a chair in the shower, and to get back to my bed and get dressed. I was going home. Yippee… no more nappy!
Free at last!
On 21 January, a taxi took me home. It was a thrill to see blue skies again. The first thing that I did was a clean-up. I looked like a zombie, as I was unable to shave, or cut my nails.
My first day, I realised how difficult it was to get up off the loo, having such lower body weakness. Thanks to a nearby chair, I managed. When I dropped something and got onto my hands and knees to pick it up, I couldn’t get up again, and had to crawl to my bed, get my upper body onto the bed, turn over, and push myself up.
The first two weeks, I only had energy to walk up and down the passage. The four steps at the entrance of the house were too difficult. I had to prop myself in the shower and to get dressed. A milestone was making it down the road to Snoekies for a packet of hot chips… I had made it!
When I read my disjointed and delirious Whatsapp posts, I realise how sick I was. I really believe that, if not for the thoughts and prayers of my friends and family, I would not have survived.
Seven months later
I’m basically fine now, but run out of energy in the afternoons, and experience a broken sleep pattern. Leon and I have become good friends. I’m walking a lot.
I have an elevated thyroid, swollen ankles due to water retention, and a some tingling and numbness on my left thigh which I’m told is slight nerve damage from the daily steroids and anti-coagulant injections in my stomach, and that will eventually sort itself out. I’m on water tablets, Vitamins C and D, Zinc, hypertension tablets, and calcium/glycerine tablets. I’ve had both my vaccinations, with no major side effects.
So, to those that still say that Covid is just flu… Walk in my shoes!
• Published in the PDF edition of the November 2021 issue – Click here to get it.
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