EXCLUSIVE for MakanDay

Part IV

JOHN MUKELA, MakanDay’s managing partner is a Covid-19 survivor. In this fourth installment of this exclusive series, he recounts his tussle with death. 

Shortly after my arrival at the UTH Covid-19 Isolation Ward I figured it would be a good idea to contact close friends and colleagues to let them know I was a Covid patient. All expressed surprise. Some where clearly shocked. All of them expressed their faith in God, that he would not abandon me in my hour of need.

In all, I had spent four nights in the UTH general casualty ward plus an extra five at the Covid isolation ward. At no time during my “incarceration” at the isolation ward did I see a doctor. I was anxious to know what had become of the chest x-ray taken a few days earlier, but all my inquiries hit a blank wall.

The isolation ward could be a death trap at night. When patients were vulnerable and needing assistance, there was no systematic method to alert nursing staff. The best patients could do was shout for help. None often came.

One morning, two female nurses and a male companion came to my room.

Despite their full faces being hidden by masks, it was instantaneously clear to me that they were rather disturbed. After establishing who they were and what they wanted, I waited to hear what they had to say. In a nutshell, it was to tell me that unfortunately, my Covid test had returned a positive result. The nurses delivered the news as though it was a death sentence. But I felt relieved. Now I knew for sure what I was up against and I would have to decide how best to tackle the situation to increase my survival chances. For me, it was very good news.

As the days wore on, my condition worsened but I also knew this was part of the progression of the illness. I could not get off my bed. Relieving myself was one of the hardest things.

There were moments of kindness.

Chanda, the male nurse, offered to wash my boxer undershorts one morning, so that I could have a clean pair. A couple of female nurses gave me a sponge bath with a face-cloth, as I lay sprawled on my bed another morning. I had till then, not bathed for over a week and prior to that, rubbing the sweat off my brow I noticed thick black sweaty grime rolling off my skin. The sponge bath wasn’t much. But it was better than nothing.

One morning, when I was feeling slightly strong, I summoned all my energy to get up and stand at the window, watching people walking past outside with their inevitable facemasks. The late Zambian winter sun was shining softly, and the green leaves of a couple of flamboyant trees, with the summer remnants of their gorgeous red-orange blossoms doted here and there, was a pleasant sight. Little things I had normally taken for granted – but it was these little things that were the true essence of life and existence. Being able to appreciate them gave me some sense of hope that eventually, I would come through my terrible ordeal.

That short walk to the window that morning could have been the turning point in my road to recovery. And I was elated and proud I had made the effort.

Just before lunch one Saturday morning after nine days at the hospital, Chanda entered my room to tell me that I was being moved from the isolation ward to the newly-completed Levy Mwanawasa General Hospital. I was excited and also apprehensive. While many others who had been there before me, had initially touted the UTH isolation ward as excellent, for me, it was a grim disaster of a prison. Equally, I had heard that Levy Hospital was better-geared and equipped to serve Covid patients. But what if after all the hype, it turned out to be a worse nightmare? Worse even, than the UTH Isolation Ward? What then?

Too weak to make it on my own to the waiting ambulance that would transport us to Levy, Chanda came to the rescue with a wheelchair and I was relieved.

In the ambulance, a middle-aged patient was already seated at the near side next to the sliding side door. Perhaps seeing that I had disembarked from a wheelchair and concluding that I must have been the worse for wear, he motioned me to the stretcher bed towards the rear double door. Instead, I chose the empty single chair just behind the drivers’ seat. The third passenger to join us was a stocky Chinese fellow clad in blue jeans and a brown denim jacket. It was unmistakably Trump’s Wuhan Chinaman, the “Covid culprit” whom I had spotted several days earlier at the casualty ward. (Click on link below for part two).


Obviously, they had brought him straight here and this was where he had been all these days. Wuhan Chinaman was well equipped and very much concerned with his massive luggage, almost filling up the entirety of the empty space available in the ambulance. There were two 20-litre canisters of mineral water, trays of raw eggs, bundles of fruits, and so on. Whatever he had been told, it was clear they had said he must prepare for a long incarceration.

With our bags fully loaded, we were ready to go.

Ambulances are always reverse painted along their length and back, so that outside looking in, you cannot see or observe the ambulance interior. Sitting inside, I tried to peer over the little strip of window over the reverse painting. There wasn’t much to see but I was intrigued. The middle-aged patient sat impassively and in quiet contemplation of some personal matters. Wuhan Chinaman preferred to stand, his eyes constantly monitoring his massive load of luggage.

Not long into the journey, a call came through on my mobile phone. It was a long distance Whatsapp from England. Anthony, an old school friend had managed to locate me decades after we were both boarding students at Kamwala Secondary. It was more than a pleasant surprise and I was thrilled. He had long since relocated from Zambia and was now a senior consultant surgeon in England. We chatted and reminisced about the old days and briefed each other about what we were up to.

I remembered how as young lads at school, Anthony and I were first introduced to civic responsibility. Somehow, we had been chosen by our Capetonian tough talking and feared boarding master, Jack Gentle, to accompany Mr. Howard every Thursday afternoon to the same UTH hospital I had just left. Our task was to help Mr. Howard dispense sweets to the hospital patients in the wards. I could not help but wonder, was it there that Anthony had first got the bug to embark on a medical career?

Every now and again, I raised my eyes to try and see where the ambulance was, worried that I was missing out on the sights while chatting to Anthony. Arriving at our destination, a wheelchair was commandeered to take me to the ward. Wuhan and silent patient were able to walk unaided. A long corridor with doors on either side greeted us upon entering the building’s second floor, and at a pair of double doors marked “Room 217” we were ushered inside.

Inside room 217, on the immediate left side of the ward, the lone patient lay sprawled out on his bed. The ward, I was to discover later, was an identical replica of all the wards on our floor, with its six beds – three on either side. I was allocated the bed at the far right next to one of two double aluminum windows overlooking a car park two floors below and an adjacent hospital block about 30 metres away.

Surveying our surroundings and the equipment available for patients’ convenience, it was clear to me that my earlier fears were perhaps unfounded, and that here, I stood more than a fighting chance of beating the virus.

Wuhan was allocated the bed opposite the resident patient we had found. Silent patient was given the bed opposite mine. The remaining two beds in the middle on either side of the ward were left vacant. I figured this to be a measure of the care staff were taking to maintain social distancing.

Relocating to new environs always poses logistical difficulties and one of them that night was to come late when my eyes were heavy with sleep. There were noises, rustling sounds and scratching movements constantly disturbing the relative peace. I tried hard to ignore them but the more I tried the louder they appeared to get.

What were they? Was it rats? Vermin already in the spanking new Levy Mwanawasa Hospital? I heaved my body to peer at the source of the commotion. In the dim light of the ward what greeted me was far from what I could have expected.

It was Wuhan. But what was he doing? And why at this ungodly hour of four in the morning, just before dawn, when sleep was the sweetest? Something must have been wrong and maybe Wuhan needed a helping hand to fix it.

Of course, none of my assumptions were close to the truth.

Wuhan was cooking. Preparing an early pre-dawn breakfast.

In the days that followed, a pattern emerged. Just before dawn, in the dim light of the ward, Wuhan would be up and the cling clang of cups, plates, rustling of plastic bags and the sound of a kettle boiling water would fill the early morning stillness.

Wuhan had a voracious appetite. If it wasn’t gnawing at a thick piece of smoked pork, he was munching an apple, wolfing down some noodles or peeling an orange.

Now and again, he would stoop down and reach into his blue bedside cabinet to fish out his secret stash of hidden pills, which he crushed into a powder using a spoon, before mixing them with hot water and quickly gulping down the concoction.

Was it some special Chinese regimen that Wuhan was self-administering, I wondered? Did he know something that I didn’t? I figured it must have been a supplementary cocktail of pills, perhaps recommended by his Wuhan superiors. Whatever was in the pills, it seemed to do the trick because he was always on the go. When he got bored, he turned to his mobile phone, with its myriad menu of games and other trivia. There was a Chinese pop song he loved to play, and unconscious of whether it was appreciated by his fellow patients, it filled the ward, crowding out all other sounds or conversation.

Despite the possible noise pollution it created, not once did any of the fellow patients complain.

For most of this time, I was still extremely weak and fragile, with little or no appetite for food. The bananas and other fruits on my bedside cabinet were over-ripened and left un-eated for longer, would have to be thrown away.

Wuhan showed me how to eat, and from my bed, I secretly watched him wolf down great chunks of smoked pork and other Chinese delicacies packed full in his bulging luggage.

I envied his appetite. Occasionally, I would catch him secretly checking me out. While he was full of vigour and strength, I must have seemed such a pathetic sick figure as I hobbled up and down.

One morning, I was lying on my bed and as usual, Wuhan was eating. He must have sensed my lack of interest in food and my general malaise. I knew that food must be eaten if I was to get better, but simply couldn’t bring myself to eat however much I wished or tried.

Suddenly without much warning, Wuhan was next to my bed. In his hand was a large piece of smoked pork, which he thrust in my direction. I tried to say no, but he was having none of it – insisting I accept his benevolent offer. Not wanting to seem insolent, I accepted and was immediately seized by dread. What if it was dog-meat? Or smoked snake?

Now having retreated back to his bed, I saw him eye me now and again, and reaffirming my acceptance of his kind gesture, I nibbled at the smoked meat, slowly, until finally, with a sense of immense relief, I gulped down the last bite.

Wuhan didn’t show it. But I knew he must have been very pleased.

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