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Silent enemy taught me the importance of real friends

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From the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I worked on the frontlines as a pharmacist. Each day, I would go to work, much to the opposition of my wife, Jackie, and my children here and overseas.

This alone caused stress within our household. Little did we know that we would become “another two of the statistics”. At work, I wore a mask, gloves, sanitised, and frequently washed my hands. In my mind, this would be enough to keep me safe.

We knew that there was a war out there against a silent enemy that had no regard for gender, religion, colour, or financial standing. Towards the end of May 2020, we learnt that a colleague of mine had tested positive.

We immediately booked tests. Our worst fears were confirmed, as we both tested positive. What could we do but to isolate ourselves and take paracetamol every four hours as instructed?

At this point, we had no temperature, but both had body aches with hot and cold chills and bronchial coughs. My breathing was very shallow.

We then remembered an email that was sent to us about the Community Security Organisation (CSO’s) COVID-19 Wellness Monitoring Programme. We promptly signed up.

Monday came, and Jayden from CSO brought us a thermometer and an oximeter. He told us to monitor our oxygen levels and temperatures, and he would phone us later in the day.

We did as instructed. My reading was in the mid-80s, and Jackie’s was in the low 90s. When Jayden phoned and my readings were still the same, he said he would contact our GP.

After consultation between our GP and the CSO medical team, I was instructed to get to hospital. I put some things together, said goodbye to Jackie with an elbow nudge, and off I went with my daughter to Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital. Unbeknown to me, Jackie was told by the doctors that they didn’t think I would survive.

Jackie was anxious. She was alone and scared. She had morbid thoughts about my health, thinking that I wouldn’t pull through, and she would be alone.

I was dropped outside the hospital, and said a tearful goodbye to my daughter. This is when the loneliness began. I was admitted via a shipping container parked on the side of the building and taken via a backdoor and special elevator to the COVID-19 intensive-care unit (ICU).

There I stayed for 16 days, battling the virus. I was put onto a CPAP machine with high volume oxygen, and on antibiotic treatment for the infection in both my lungs.

According to my pulmonologist, my lungs were in a bad way, and it was going to be a slow and long process. Each day, depending on my SATS, oxygen levels were adjusted. Some days I would use the nasal canula. Besides the oxygen, I was given other medication including vitamins.

The ICU was like a scene out of a sci-fi movie, with flashing lights and the continual beeping of monitors. The staff and doctors in their personal protective equipment working under stressful and difficult conditions are to be highly commended.

Lying in bed, I started to feel concern not for myself, but for Jackie sick at home. Here I was being cared for and having my every need seen to. Who was caring for Jackie? How was she getting food? What if I didn’t make it, as she didn’t hug and kiss me before I left for the hospital?

Here again, the CSO came to the rescue via a compassionate twice-a-day call to Jackie from Dani to enquire about her health. Just this daily contact kept her spirits up.

Our friends rallied around, and dropped food at our door. WhatsApp messages from around the world kept her busy, and Jackie was also comforted by messages from acquaintances. The assurance by our friends that prayers were being said, and Jackie reciting tehillim each day, gave her spiritual support.

Our children overseas were anxious, and they wanted daily updates. Thankfully, my pulmonologist kept Jackie and my children in the loop. What helped me get through it was my positive attitude and determination to beat the virus, and the thought of getting home to my family.

I responded well to the treatment, and thanks to Hashem and the timely intervention by the CSO, I was discharged on 18 June to an emotional reunion with my family.

Life threatening situations like this make us realise how fragile life is, and how important family and friends are.

We are blessed to have an organisation like the CSO and all the staff and responders, especially Jayden and Dani. They are there for us. We must be there for them. They need our support either financially or by volunteering.

For us, the aftermath was different. I’m back to full health, while Jackie developed a blood clot and vascular problems in her leg, which is being treated.

To everyone, we say the virus is real. Stay home, sanitise, and wear a mask if you have to go out.

  • Owen Garbman is a pharmacist in Cape Town.

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