Op-eds

‘Hashem helped me – there is no other explanation’

  • warren bank
With the benefit of hindsight, I now know that I became infected with COVID-19 along with several other people at our shul’s Purim dinner on 10 March 2020.
by WARREN BANK | Jul 09, 2020

At that stage, people were already refraining from shaking hands and were doing that “fist pump” thing, but no one really took the threat of a pandemic very seriously. In fact, all the South African congregants posed for a group photo with our new South African rabbinical couple, Rabbi Greg and Hannah Bank, without a care in the world.

It took another 48 hours for me to start feeling as if I’d caught a cold along with a runny nose, sore head, and general congestion. I was unwilling to get ill because I had planned a long-awaited trip back to South Africa, leaving on Sunday evening, 15 March.

Nevertheless, I listened to advice, and isolated myself anyway to see what would happen. I did an online check-in late on Saturday night. But the next day, one hour before I was about to leave for Heathrow Airport, a local friend rang me to say that there were at least four reported cases of coronavirus in our shul (including Rabbi Bank) and that I should seriously reconsider my trip.

Within a few minutes, another friend in Joburg left me a message suggesting that I really shouldn’t travel. That did it. I immediately cancelled my flight, and I didn’t have much time to focus on my disappointment because my symptoms began to worsen.

By the next morning, I could barely move from my bed as I was dizzy, had a high temperature, and bodily aches and pains. The fever, nausea, and other symptoms seemed to come in waves: they would dissipate in the mornings but would return with a vengeance every afternoon. I lost my appetite, and was able to swallow only some of the chicken soup that was left on my doorstep by community members and ordered from our South African-run kosher deli.  Unusually, I started losing weight, which is usually a blessing (but which I’ve now found again).

Our National Health Service (NHS) told us to look out for “a new continuous cough” which I certainly didn’t have. It was only after five days that I noticed that I had lost my sense of taste and smell, but attributed this to the normal congestion one encounters with a cold or flu. It’s important to remember that at this stage, it wasn’t known to be symptomatic of COVID-19. There was no way to get to see a doctor or go to hospital unless one had encountered severe breathing difficulties (which I hadn’t).

Throughout this time, I could do very little apart from sit on the couch or lie down. It was impossible to even consider doing any work, watching TV, and certainly not reading due to dizziness. It felt like I had been attacked by five bouts of flu all at the same time, and that my body and mind were under attack by armies of the virus. However, I had no certainty that I had coronavirus because of the lack of a cough.

I had no idea how seriously ill I was, and was far more concerned about several of my friends in London who had found themselves in hospital in intensive care with assisted breathing.

For the first 12 days, my body felt far too weak to drive, let alone walk, and my head too dizzy. The fever was so bad that by the time I took hold of a thermometer, 10 days into the virus, I was still running a temperature higher than 39°. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to find my bed completely soaked as the result of the extremely high fever I was running.

There was one occasion in which I felt that my chest was tightening in an alarming manner, but my GP advised me to sleep in a propped-up position and to report to a hospital the next morning if it was still bad. I told a few people about this.

At the time, I had no idea that people were extremely concerned about my worsening health. I brushed it off, although I secretly started to become really concerned.

The next morning, I awoke to find that the tightness and heaviness in my chest had lifted. I found out later that on that bad night, a few of my friends had quickly organised prayer groups, both Jewish and Christian, and had been saying tehillim and fervently praying for my recovery.

I honestly feel that Hashem performed a miracle for me that night and interceded, because I can’t explain it any other way. That night was a turning point, and my feverish bouts started becoming less frequent.

By 24 March, about two weeks after becoming infected, I was able to report that I had been free of any fever for 24 hours, and this gradually increased. By the beginning of April, I started feeling stronger and I was able to go for short walks that I gradually increased in length. I did find that I reached a “plateau” and remained feeling only 90% better for at least one extra month before this improved.

I later realised the enormity of what I had had to fight, physically and mentally. I’m grateful that I didn’t have any inkling of how long it would last and how severe the symptoms would be at the time, as it would have scared me beyond belief. It’s only when I look back now, three months later, that I realise what an ordeal I have been through.

Many people still ask whether I have “completely recovered” from coronavirus. Having joined a number of online support groups, it’s clear that no one really knows if and when one can fully recover from COVID-19. It’s too soon to say. Many people are still suffering from chronic fatigue, body pains, and other symptoms more than 15 weeks after infection. Apart from some odd sleeping patterns that I appear to have picked up during my illness, I believe that I’m, in fact, 100% recovered.

What kept me sane during this time was being able to sit at my piano and play for hours during the day when the fever wasn’t so harsh. This has been a unique opportunity to connect with our Jewish community, not only locally but also with others in South Africa and beyond.

It turns out that my antibody levels are so high, I’ve already twice donated my convalescent blood plasma to the NHS Blood Service as part of the Remap-Cap Research Trial run by the Royal College of Physicians and Oxford University. They will use it to test whether administering antibody-rich plasma from recovered COVID-19 survivors can help fight the virus in the most critically ill patients. Here’s hoping!

Today was the first time that we had a morning minyan (under strict conditions) and it felt strange being back in the same shul hall where I first became infected with the virus four months ago.

Catching COVID-19 has changed the way I view the world and given me a newfound appreciation for the fragility and sanctity of life. It has enabled me to question and re-evaluate my priorities in life.

  • Warren Bank moved to the United Kingdom from South Africa in 2015, and practices as a barrister. He lives in Cheadle, near Manchester, and is a member of the Yeshurun Congregation there.

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