EXCLUSIVE for MakanDay - Part One

JOHN MUKELA, MakanDay’s managing partner and editor-in-chief, has just recovered from Covid-19. In this series of articles, he recounts his experience from the brink of death.

IT was the classic beginning.

A cough. Desert dry and relentless.

Each time I attempted to speak, or laugh, my body would wrench into spasms of coughing and breathlessness, leaving me gasping for air.

Tuesday, 7th July 2020, at our local neighbourhood private hospital, I was told by the doctor that it was pneumonia, given a week’s course of antibiotics, and reassured that I would be fine, I returned home.

A week later, instead of getting better, the cough was more persistent and refusing to go away. My throat and chest were hurting. Back to the private hospital, I was given an additional course of antibiotics and again, told to return home.

By 15th July, I could hardly eat or drink anything, spending most of the days holed up in my bedroom wheezing, coughing and sleeping.

By then, alarm had been raised and my two sons were worried. A midnight phone call from my sister Patricia that she was on her way with her husband Fairchild didn’t go down well with me.

“It’s too late!” I insisted. “Better you come in the morning. I’m tired. Let me sleep!”

But Patricia was concerned. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Come in the morning. It’s late!”

About an hour later, my son was knocking softly on the door.

“What is it?” I yelled.

“It’s auntie Patricia!”

I cursed under my breath. But had no choice. That’s how well after midnight, I found myself again, back at the private hospital. After a quick examination, we were told that my oxygen saturation levels were far below the desired reading, that the private hospital was not equipped to treat me, and that they were referring me to the main University Teaching Hospital (UTH).

When we arrived, it was long past the common bustling commotion of UTH and the hospital was eerily quiet. We joined the short queue of outpatients, given a reference number and told to wait our turn for the consultation. With those formalities over and done with, I was told to proceed to the casualty ward.

With my son Liswaniso, we made our way, and glancing sideways, I caught sight of Patricia and Fairchild chatting away while leaning against the hospital wall. I didn’t know then that it was the last I would see them for close to six weeks.

In the casualty ward, I was totally shocked when told that I was being admitted. Me? Admitted at UTH? This place about which I had heard so many horror stories?

I sat on a plastic garden chair and after a few minutes’ wait, was allocated an emergency bed. I noticed the ward was full, mostly with male patients and a sprinkling of females. The facilities appeared rather rudimentary and later, when I ventured to the toilet, I was shocked to discover the only available toilet cubicle was shared by both men and women and lacked running water.

Friday 17th  July, Mutukwa, Liswaniso and their cousin Mwandezi came to see me with food and lots of fruits. Mwandezi offered to pray by my bedside, and reassured me that “Jehovah God will guide you through your illness”. It had not occurred to me just how ill I must have been but by then, I was in a daze. In just 24 hours, my condition had markedly worsened.

Why, I wondered to myself, had I deteriorated so fast? Only the day before, I was able to at least walk. Now, just over a day later, I was struggling to get off the bed. I was afraid to eat, not only for lack of appetite, but also because of the lack of proper toilet facilities and water to flush the toilet.

Our ward had about 11 beds. On the opposite side of my bed was a loud argumentative female patient incessantly engaged in a running back and forth argument with nursing staff. In the extreme right opposite my bed, a patient whom nursing staff referred to as “Ba Ben” appeared to be in a bad way.

Saturday 18th July, the reality of my situation began to slowly sink in. It wasn’t reassuring. My breathing had worsened and even with oxygen, I was struggling to breathe. The issue of food and the need for me to eat was a constant theme.  Severely dehydrated, my urine was a deep orange.

Later that day, an elderly thickset patient was ushered into the ward. All the beds were taken. There were no spaces to squeeze any extra beds. The patient was given a black plastic picnic chair to sit and wait – just as I had been given when being admitted. The patient was in distress, spluttering away in heavy spasms as he attempted to cough and clear his throat, filling the ward with an unpleasant growling sound. I overheard him explain that he had not eaten for the previous three days because his throat was too inflamed, and he could not swallow.

Miraculously, a bed was wheeled into the ward and plonked next to mine. His coughing was now too loud and serious, but the nurses seemed to take it in their stride. I noticed he had several ragged pieces of cloth, into which he would cough. He would spit bloody mucous into a piece of cloth, but some of it would spray the surrounding vicinity, including the floor. And I was being lectured to eat my food. How could I summon the will to eat in such conditions? I didn’t want this man next to me. Although pneumonia had already been diagnosed, I had not yet been tested for Covid-19. Assuming I was covid-free, I figured there was every likelihood I would catch it here.

From the snippets of overheard conversation, I was able to gather that the new patient was also suffering from some form of tonsillitis and was unable to eat or swallow. Blood splattered onto my bed’s curtain railing and onto the floor as he gasped for air, coughing violently.

At some point, the violent spasms of his coughing sent him crashing onto the floor. When the nurses came to his rescue, his request was that he be allowed to sleep on the floor on the mattress, instead of returning to his bed, to which the nurses obliged. And so, he lay on the mattress on the floor, wheezing and coughing violently.

Isolation centre at UTH

I was relieved when, later that evening, he was moved and wheeled on a stretcher out of the ward – from what I later gathered, taken to the hospital’s Covid-19 isolation wing.

It was a difficult night for me and somewhere around midnight, from my light sleep, I was awakened by activity on the opposite side of the ward. Voices suggested a medical emergency was underway, with nursing staff darting to and fro. Some of the medics were huddled over the bed and despite the drawn curtains surrounding the patient’s bed, I could not help but notice that two people were frantically attempting CPR to revive the patient. They took alternate turns, with one appearing to be riding the patient’s chest, like a jockey on his horse “Desire” at the Durban July.

This carried on for about four or five minutes, probably more. And then there was a long silence. Summoning the courage to take another look, I noticed that save for a nurse or two, the patient’s cubicle was empty. The curtains that had earlier been drawn to shield prying eyes from monitoring the proceedings, were now pulled back. Half an hour later, I heard the sound of a stretcher and I knew that “Ba Ben” was no more.

Sunday was almost an identical repeat of Saturday’s unfortunate drama. After similar theatrics, the second patient was inevitably wheeled away on a stretcher to the morgue.

The weekend’s events sent a pall of doom and gloom in the ward, and with the sadness, even though I hadn’t even spoken to “Ba Ben”, I felt a palpable sense of loss. Still, none of us uttered a word about it. But for the nursing staff, it was business as usual. All part of the routine of hospital life.

I had been in the UTH general casualty ward now for three days. The first day having passed rather uneventfully, I had already witnessed a death on the second day and another on the third.

For some inexplicable reason, it didn’t escape my noticing that the two deaths had both occurred on the opposite side of the ward from where I lay. Unbeknown to me then, things were about to take a turn for the worse because shortly after mid-day, I was told I was being moved.

“Where to?” I asked.

“The other side,” came the curt reply.

I was about to join my colleagues on the “death wing” of the ward.

What did it all mean? I wondered.

Be sure to catch up with the next installment of John Mukela’s tussle with Covid-19 in part two of this exclusive series, next week!