EXCLUSIVE for MakanDay

Part III

JOHN MUKELA, MakanDay’s managing partner, recounts his brush with Covid-19 in this exclusive series. 

AROUND midnight, I was awakened by two men and told to gather my things and get ready. They said I was being moved. I found it bizarre that I should be moved at such an ungodly hour but I didn’t object. I grabbed my two pillows and few odds and ends in my possession and was wheeled out on a wheelchair out through the double twin doors.

A chilly blast of air hit my body as I was quickly spirited away and as we drew near the neat rectangular three storey building, our pace slowed down. In bold white letters, a large billboard outside the building proclaimed: “Corona-Virus COVID-19 Isolation Ward.”

The “Isolation Ward” was printed against a menacing bright red background.

The gates to the building were heavily fortified and secured and I remarked that this must have been like Mukobeko Maximum Prison in Kabwe.

Along the eerily quiet corridor, we stopped outside room 11 and one of my handlers pushed the door.

“This is your room!” I was told.

It was a single room with the usual paraphernalia. A couple of large oxygen tanks, one next to the single bed, the other on the far side near the window. An oxygen canister was quickly connected to my breathing tubes and I was told to relax till morning. The toilets and bathroom, I was informed, were just down the corridor. It wasn’t what I would have called a warm welcome. I was more of an inconvenience to be quickly got rid off.

On either side of the long corridor were numbered rooms. I saw no nursing staff at the reception desk. The entire place looked abandoned and deserted. Shortly after my handlers had departed I felt the urge to immediately seek out the loo. Making sure to memorise room number 11, I ambled towards where the loo had been indicated. There was an open door with what appeared to be showers and another door with the single toilet. A quick peek inside the toilet told me it was unusable, full of excrement and presumably no water. I immediately started off for room 11. There was no way I would have been expected to sit on that toilet.

Racing back towards room 11 I was gasping for air. In my haste, just before I reached room 11, I tripped and fell, heavily hitting the tiled floor. Luckily, save for a couple of bruises on my right knee, I escaped relatively unscathed. I lay there on the floor motionless and surprised. Then alarmed, I realized that if I did not summon all my will to get up, I would be a frozen corpse by daybreak. I opened my eyes and the walls appeared a brilliant white. Probably a symptom of oxygen starvation in the blood from my optic nerves.

Staggering into room 11, I was relieved when I finally connected the oxygen tubes to my nostrils. It had been a close shave.

At your lowest, old friends suddenly come to your mental rescue. So in the morning, gasping and wheezy, I summoned the energy to call and inform those I could locate in my whatsapp contact list. Some were visibly shocked at the sight of me with tubes in my nose and oxygen canisters next to my bed. Everyone was unanimous in urging me not to give up the ghost. I was told to be strong, optimistic and courageous. What they didn’t realize was that those things had no bearing on my resolve. All I cared for was to survive the moment, the next, and the one after. Optimism and strength were too abstract.

Nights were the most difficult time. There were no buzzers, so if you needed the attention of the nurses, you had to shout out for help and pray not only were you heard, but that whoever heard you would come to your rescue, which was very seldom the case.

A bedpan was placed on a plastic chair. An empty bottle of mineral water was for spitting any phlegm coughed out and for urinating into.

Breakfast was always maize meal porridge, served in a plastic cup, but I rarely had the appetite to eat it. The bedpan and mineral water bottle would be emptied and returned. Medicine and injections would be administered at the appropriate hour. Still, I quickly realized that to ensure my survival here, I needed to enlist a couple of enabling allies to assist me and help me cope.

Behind his protective gear, a male nurse suggested that to recover quickly I needed to eat more fruits. Of course I knew that. Bananas were always perfect, he said. So where apples, of which I had plenty. I felt that the nurse was trying to reach out, making an offer – a kind of quid-pro-quo arrangement whereby he would run my errands for “a little something.”

“Get me some mineral water bottles and some bananas,” I asked. But as I had no cash on me, I promised he would receive the money by ewallet later in the day.

Those who have not experienced it cannot imagine the devastating nature of Covid-19. It is such a dangerous respiratory condition, ravaging the body like corrosive acid on the body’s tissues. It eats you up and closes your means to live – oxygen. You gasp, but cannot breath. Without external assistance and oxygen, you succumb within minutes. It clogs your nostrils and nasal passages with huge blobs of congealed phlegm – closing off all your airways. Your lungs bleed and you cough blood. Prolonged use of oxygen tubes – night and day, but especially at night, sucks all the moisture from your throat, nose and mouth. At night, you’re engaged in a constant battle to keep afloat, to keep hydrated. If you manage to sleep at night, its often just a nod here and a nod there, before you awaken, mouth and tongue as dry as leather hide, and you reach out for water.

It was during these brief episodes of dozing off that one night as I lay on my bed, I sensed strangers hovering around my bed. Who were they and what did they want? On the right side of the bed were two men, probably late 20s or early 30s. They wore tight denim jeans and equally tight tops or t-shirts. They were engaged in some discussion over my bed but I could not discern what it was they were concerned with. On the left side of the bed next to the wall was their third companion. For most of the time, the third man was silent. But something told me it was the third man in charge of deliberations over my bed. He must have been the boss.  I lay there on the bed, trying hard to figure out what these people were doing. Why were they here and when had they entered my room? No answer came, but slowly, I realized what I was witnessing and seeing was a figment of my imagination.

I was alone in that room. I was delirious, and what I had seen was a hallucinatory mirage. My oxygen must have dropped and my brain was starved – causing the strange images. So covid was not only eating up my lungs – it was beginning to mess up with my brain, driving me crazy and loony.

Gasping for air, hallucinating and coughing blood, the very sad part of it was that all covid patients died such lonely deaths, with no loved ones by their bedside. Just you and if you were lucky, a nurse or a doctor, looking like cyborg human robots in their protective overalls, masks and glass face protectors. They were surreal – straight out of science fiction.

So apart from your very painful physical suffering, here you were alone and afraid and full of mental pain. One night – in that state of suffering, I began to comprehend what it meant to suffer. I thought of Jesus and how he had carried his cross to Calvary for our sins. I tried to imagine the suffering that he must have endured. How much more painful and traumatizing it must have been for him and how despite all his anguish and suffering, he had accepted it – as his eternal gift to us. His legacy.

I thought of Mary Magdalene, offering to wash and anoint Jesus’ feet days before his crucifixion, and wondered what the significance of her offering had been. I accepted that if Jesus could endure such suffering, such hardship, then maybe suffering was equally endurable. Maybe this was part of the deal, and I just had to accept it.

Questions regarding morbidity figures and statistics by health officials of covid deaths have been a constant theme. When analyzing the statistical data, circulated figures appeared to be highly suppressed, with anecdotal evidence suggesting health officials were covering up and playing down the number of covid deaths.

Several patients whom I had spoken to confirmed that people were “dying like flies.”

For example, why was the figure for people brought in dead so high? How were first contact primary clinics and health facilities handling cases? In my own case, I had been told that I had pneumonia and for two weeks before being admitted to hospital, I was bed-ridden at home, while in reality, it wasn’t pneumonia, but covid, that was ravaging my body. How many people had been similarly wrongly diagnosed? And how many of these had died in their beds at home?

The truth was that primary contact clinics and health facilities neither had the capacity nor the incentive to carry out the necessary tests. And so people were dying in high numbers, in their homes.

“How did he die?”

“Oh!...he just collapsed in the shower!” ….or “She just fell and died!” were the usual remarks.

Added to these observations was my own evidence. Of particular concern was what I had seen in the casualty wards, especially at UTH, where I spent nine days. A seriously compromised patient was wheeled in on a wheelchair or stretcher. They were given a bed, gasping for air and unable to breath. A nurse came over and assessed the situation. An oxygen mask was located, connected to the oxygen tank, and the patient was able to breath again. But there was usually a problem. The oxygen tanks were prone to prematurely run out of oxygen and when the patient was well settled and relaxed, they often did. Suddenly, the patient was back again, panting and gasping. The oxygen cylinder was empty!

The patient was sometimes unable to alert staff. Technicians had to be summoned to deal with the empty oxygen tank. But by the time help arrived, the patient was dead.

Several patients attested to seeing these kinds of scenes. I saw them myself and was myself nearly a victim too. A patient told me in a single night as many as three patients died gasping for air. He said that thinking he was next in line, he broke down and wept.

So many people were also dying not because they were that seriously ill, but mostly because management arrangements were inadequate. In other words, gross mismanagement would not be too strong a term to describe what was killing these patients – a critical omission here, a critical delay there. That was what was killing so many patients. Even though some of these patients were yet to receive their covid-19 swab results – of which the majority were positive, the causes of death were not listed as covid.

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