Just like a frontline soldier during war, the Covid-19 pandemic saw health workers become soldiers of sorts and many have been infected, with others succumbing to the disease.
Like many in a similar position, while Dr Ombeva Malande, a senior consultant in paediatric infectious diseases and vaccinology, knew that by virtue of his work there would be a time he would get infected, he is glad to have lived to tell the story, and to share about his experience.
“Early in October , I became part of the statistics of medical doctors who have contracted and battled with Covid-19. It all stemmed from the evening when I was called to review a deteriorating child who was not responding to antibiotic cover for pneumonia,” the doctor, who is also a lecturer at Makerere University, shares. Dr Ombeva admits that the personal protective equipment (PPE) he used, when going to the facility, was not optimum.
“I guess my mind was focused on saving this child who was critically ill that I didn’t pay close attention to my PPE until much later. The cumulative exposure time I spent with the child and her mother, who was sick-looking and coughing frequently was significant, that I was bound to catch whatever bug they had.”
After about an hour, Dr. Ombeva successfully stabilised the sick child and then asked that the duo take a Covid-19 PCR test, the result of which came back early the next day, showing that both were positive for SARS-COV2 – the Covid-19 causing virus.
“With the significant exposure, I immediately knew I ran a real risk of contracting corona virus. True to my prediction, four days later, I developed a persistent headache that was unresponsive to paracetamol, a dry cough and flu-like symptoms. I went to Naguru Hospital to get tested for corona virus, and the next morning, the results confirmed it, I was Covid-19 PCR positive,” he shares about the onset of a battle that would go beyond the commonly stated 14 days.
The battle begins
Dr Ombeva then went to see a physician for further evaluation and check-up before going into mandatory isolation as he underwent treatment. “By the time I got the results, I had red itchy eyes, dry cough, sore throat, severe muscle aches, severe joint pains and abdominal pain.”
While he knew that days five to 13 of any Covid-19 patient’s journey can be a nightmare, experiencing it was a different scenario. “The headache and muscle ache symptoms had worsened to the point where no oral pain control medication could relieve it. My attending physician then decided I needed a stronger approach to pain management thus putting me on injectable diclofenac 75mg IM, 8-12 hourly. This was coupled with other medications; a daily dose of a zinc tablet and ascorbic acid as well as daily azithromycin and hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) for five days.” Quite understandably, many people have strong reservations and questions regarding the use of HCQ in Covid-19, especially after WHO’s solidarity trial results showed little benefit following its use but Dr Ombeva says he had already played this scenario in his head and was ready to take HCQ if and when he tested positive for SARS-COV2. “I cannot for certain say it helped me. Nonetheless, the pain and myalgia I suffered during the illness was new to me, very severe and excruciating that I was ready to give this treatment combination a try.”
Besides the pain, he also had drenching night sweats, irritating persistent dry cough, and extreme fatigue that he could hardly lift a 20-litre jerrycan of water or do any simple work yet he had hoped to catch up on the piling load on his laptop.
All this was worsened by air hunger and breathlessness that occurred on two separate nights between day five and 10, usually at around 2am.
“It felt as if I was drowning – with air hunger – something that puzzled me, especially knowing that I am a young man who exercises, generally watches his diet and health carefully with no comorbidity – so why would I have episodes of air hunger?” he wondered.
Dr Ombeva says these low oxygen nights which are a fairly common symptom among Covid-19 patients, were scary, adding perspective to his understanding of God holding each of our lives in His hands and that He can switch it off anytime at His pleasure.
In an effort to relieve these episodes, he did some manoeuvres such as squatting, lying in recovery position and changing from supine to prone position to slowly regain composure and stability. “I tried to remain as calm as possible, reasoning that whatever happens, I would go down fighting. All I needed was half a chance at survival, and I would take it,” he sighed.
As he slowly improved from those episodes, he reached out for his pulse oximeter (an instrument that measures one’s oxygen levels in the blood) with hope that God had answered his plea. “It was a relief when I found I was averaging 94-95 per cent oxygen saturation in room air. The song by the legendary R. Kelly, ‘He saved me, gave me a second chance…’ came to mind,” Ombeva says.
Going past day 14
The struggle with Covid-19 was draining because while many test negative on day 14, it was not so for him, hence the continued isolation. He only got a green light on day 21. On top of all that, Dr. Ombeva also suffered insomnia from day 15, a common sign among those recovering from the disease. “It had me combing through my old book library where I found a devotional, Every day with Jesus, by the late Selwyn Hughes. I had diligently read it throughout my undergraduate medical school days and restarting it was worth it, more so in those trying moments.”
Dr Ombeva says while many think it is the ailment that claims most of the lives of Covid-19 patients, it is the fight of antibodies against the virus that does this. “This battle creates what we call a cytokine storm that can do lots of damage to one’s lungs that if they survive, could sometimes have scarred lungs.”
To people who have recovered, or at the very least tested negative on PCR, Dr Ombeva urges them to be grateful to God for giving them another chance. “We are not more special than our fellow soldiers who have lost the fight – the truth is we only tested negative, but let’s temper that with reality, the bigger battle has just started, since the magnitude of the risk of re-infection has not been quantified. So, wear that mask, wash hands often, keep safe distance and you don’t have to attend all parties you are invited to.”
He adds that: “We also need to pray against the long-term effects that have been observed in other settings such as lung fibrosis or chronic chest pain and lung disease or unexplained memory losses and strokes, insulin resistance and early onset of hypertension, depression, mood instability and insomnia.”
Dr Ombeva is keen on sharing his experience with others. “I am a recovered Covid-19 patient, who takes comfort in knowing that sharing my story will encourage many other affected people to come out and share their stories as well. I am particularly concerned about health care workers, who keep quiet and suffer in silence for all sorts of fears, including stigma. Others are at different levels of sorrow, especially those that have suffered loss of a loved one accompanying this unfortunate experience.”
For those still in the struggle, on the way to a negative result, Dr Ombeva urges them be strong, and never to give up. “Take isolation in good stead, it’s not just your doctor’s prescription, as our heavenly Father also prescribed it in Isaiah 26:20 – “My people, go into your rooms and lock your doors; Hide in there for a short time until God’s anger is finished.”
He adds that the Covid-19 infection pushes one to the limit, and at some point, you will have to summon all your energy and inner strength to stay afloat. “It is that critical moment when the rubber meets the road, when you have to look and speak to yourself; I am ready for this fight, I will give as much as I get, my head will remain above the water. That is because the feeling like you are ‘drowning’ and experiencing ‘air hunger’ is very scary, even for experienced swimmers. It is literally walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”
When and if that happens, Dr Ombeva urges patients to be ready to look the devil in the eye and fight the demons. “You’ve got to give yourself a chance to survive, in any case, if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win a raffle. It is about survival. Covid is a war, and anyone who receives a positive result must approach it with no other mind-set, than to admit that it is a war, and the desired outcome is only one: Survival.”
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