EXCLUSIVE for MakanDay

Part II

JOHN MUKELA, MakanDay’s managing partner, has just recovered from Covid-19. In this second installment of this exclusive series, he recounts his tussle with death.  

In part one last week, John had just been moved to the “death wing” of the UTH emergency casualty ward, from where we continue this week with part two.

I had now been moved diagonally from the extreme top right side of the ward (safe side) to the near left side (death wing). My immediate neighbour was a large man with a peaceful kind face. Whatever it was he was suffering from, there appeared to be elements of obese complications exacerbating his condition. Every now and again, I caught sight of him through the corner of my eye munching slowly, at a banana, or piece of orange, his head upturned towards the ceiling – deep in his private musings.

Occasionally, a woman would appear, walk to the side of his bed, and they would chat. Often, she carried something for him and at other times she left with something. I surmised he must have been her husband.

That Sunday evening, I noticed a stocky Chinese man, his face, hidden behind his disposable blue facemask. He seemed impatient and agitated – as he tried, with little success, to communicate with the nursing staff. I saw him dart out of the ward in quick agile steps and shortly after, he was back again, this time, with a couple of bags. I wondered, was he about to join our crew of patients? But his strong thickset frame with powerful limbs and sturdy wide shoulders and the way he carried himself suggested he was too fit to be a patient.

After a brief exchange, a nurse escorted the Chinaman out with his two bags and I drew a sigh of relief. I seemed to be in concert with Donald Trump and concurred with his unpopular belief that it was these Chinamen who had brought about our current covid calamity. I wanted to steer clear of anything Chinese at that point. It worried me though that my anti-Chinese prejudice came without any reservations whatsoever. I simply didn’t like Chinamen and that was it.

Later that evening, I felt the need to relieve myself. I hadn’t eaten anything substantial for the previous five days. I was weak and the waterless toilet was too far for my fragile oxygen-starved body.

“I need to relieve myself,” I pleaded with the nurse, “but I don’t think I’ll be able to make it to the loo without oxygen.”

From behind her various shields and masks, the nurse peered at me.

“I’ll bring you a bedpan,” she offered. “You can do it right here. I’ll draw the curtain!”

True to her promise, she returned shortly with a bedpan. But as she tried to draw the curtain railing to shield me from the full view of the ward, the curtain refused to budge. It was stuck, and would leave me totally exposed.

“Don’t worry,” said the nurse cheerily, and grabbing a corner of the stuck curtain, she said she would pull it and hold it.

“You can do it while I hold onto the curtain,” she suggested.

“But for how long will you stand there holding the curtain?” I asked.

“Oh!... as long as necessary,” she reassured.

I quickly considered her offer and immediately rejected it. She would inadvertently be blackmailing me into her own timeframe and threshold of her patience. What if I took forever? Wouldn’t power relations come into play? I, the sick vulnerable patient in need of her patience and sympathy. Her, the superior arbiter of my pathetic condition and weakness.

“No!” I said, shaking my head to make sure the message was loud and clear. “It’s okay. Just leave the bedpan here. I’ll figure something out,” I concluded.

“You sure?”

“Sure,” I said.

Dignity. What is it exactly and what role does it play in our wellbeing?

I could have asked these questions, but philosophical meandering was the least of my worries.

Yet if I had done so, I would have been forced to arrive to the inevitable conclusion that not only was my sanitation dilemma dehumanizing, but it was also a violation of my human dignity.

However, such issues were too remote to contemplate because soon afterwards, I summoned the courage and with my back to the open side of the exposed ward, descended onto the bedpan. If anyone looked, it wasn’t my problem. And I took my time, unencumbered by any nurse at the curtain railing, supervising my unfortunate condition.

I noticed, at some point, that most of the patients with whom I had been those first three nights, had been relocated elsewhere, or possibly, even discharged. Here in the casualty ward, patients were not meant to spend too much time or take up too much space. They came and went rapidly. For covid-19 “suspects” like me, a precondition to move out of the casualty ward was a chest x-ray. Four days down the line, my patience was running thin. Why were they not doing my x-ray? So I was quite surprised when shortly before lunchtime, a loud party of young male and female lab technicians descended onto my bed.

In tow was a spanking new portable Chinese-made x-ray machine, complete with some of its plastic wrapping still visible. It was a rare honour that I might have been the first patient to use it.

It allowed x-rays to be done on severely compromised patients, as they lay sprawled on their beds. But three unsuccessful attempts later, the radiography crew decided to call it quits. There was something wrong with one of the cables, they said, before promising to return after lunch to complete their task. It was the last I saw of them. The mobile x-ray unit was carted off by ward nurses to the side of the ward, where dejected, it remained.

Oxygen deprivation must be a nightmare for asthma sufferers. You’re gasping for air all the time. When you manage to inhale, you’re wheezing and coughing. Your lungs crave more than you’re able to provide. My dry cough had shown no signs of dissipating despite more than two weeks of continuous medication. Even if indeed, it was only pneumonia, despite being bombarded with a range of antibiotics, why was I getting worse? My oxygen saturation was around 84%. Because our bodies are able to regulate a very precise and specific balance of oxygen in our blood, normal arterial blood oxygen saturation levels in humans are 95-100% when resting. If the level falls below 90%, it is considered low and called hypoxemia. Levels below 80% may compromise organ function, such as the brain and heart. Continued low levels may lead to cardiac arrest.

Wearing the oxygen tubing all day and night was an uncomfortable nightmare. In the middle of the night, all moisture was sucked from my throat, nose and mouth and my tongue was as dry as a ragged piece of coarse leather hide. I couldn’t swallow. There was nothing to swallow.

Nights were therefore spent on an unending vigil, keeping moist by sipping water every so often, before lapsing into brief intermittent slumber, only to wake up shortly, gasping for air. If for relatively healthy me, this was how it was, I shuddered to imagine how it must have been for patients with serious underlying respiratory difficulties.

Such seemed to be the case with my brother on the next bed, lying face up, his kind face and sincere demeanor at peace with what deep down, must have been a torrent of emotion. I didn’t know his name and neither did he know mine. I would have loved to chat but he was obviously too sick and so was I. Now and again, I caught snippets of his phone conversations.

“Saturday was terrible. I was almost gone!” he once said.

“That is when they decided to bring me here.”

Another time, he was making an urgent request to a friend, or maybe a close relative?

“Are you able to come?” he asked.

“That’s too bad,” he followed up.

“Because I really really needed to see you!” His anguish was undisguised. He really needed to see whomever it was he was talking to.

Here was a man. Critically ill in hospital and wishing some close friend could come because he wished to discuss something urgent. But, for whatever reason, the friend could not come.

Why was life so cruel?

On Monday, shortly after lunch, two male nurses with a portable canister of oxygen rudely awoke me from my afternoon siesta.

“We’re going where?” I wanted to know.

“For your chest x-ray!” one said.

The other asked me to roll over from my bed onto the stretcher that would carry me to the radiography department. I turned to roll over, and a cursory glance at my gentle giant neighbour told me all was not well.

As usual, he was lying face up, asleep. His mouth was open.

Carted out of the ward into the corridor, I caught sight of the gleaming new Chinese x-ray machine, abandoned and lonely in the corner, with its state-of-the-art paraphernalia and clear screen monitors.

I was ill at ease. In the corridor as we began our journey, I turned to one of my two handlers.

“My neighbour. Next to my bed. Is he okay?” I gingerly inquired.

Behind his plastic face shield and facemask, the nurse’s eyes darted to and fro like a trapped rabbit.

“He’s fine!” I heard him say.

Unconvinced, I turned to his companion.

“Is he okay?” I begged.

There was an emphatic shaking of the head.

“He’s gone!” came the matter of fact reply.

To his lying companion, I made sure I registered my utter disgust.

In the corridor towards the radiography department was a loud throng of men, women and children. It was utter commotion. I felt like an exotic specimen, gliding along on the movable stretcher, eyes regarding me as though I was some kind of curiosity.

This was the UTH I vividly recalled. Not the relatively quiet seclusion of the emergency ward where I had hibernated now for five days.

Proceedings were rapidly and efficiently concluded at the x-ray machine and before I knew it, I was back in the ward. My x-ray was ready and the computer disk on which it was stored was attached to documents in my file.

The bed where the gentle giant had lain was empty.

Thoughts go through you when you’re lying idle in bed. Yes, your body might be incapacitated but your mind is free to roam the universe. A nurse had asked me soon after admission what it was that I did for a living. I told her, quite truthfully, that I was unemployed. Of course, I could have told her that I was a writer because to write, you didn’t have to be employed. Anybody could write. But to what purpose would such vanity have served? Wouldn’t they have found a way to spirit me out of there quicker than it had taken?

Certainly, that would have been my loss.

In part three of this exclusive series, be sure to catch the next installment of John Mukela’s tussle with Covid-19!