First appeared in City Press 21 November 2021 Mid-June 2021 is a time of my life that I will remember forever: my world crashed when my biggest fear was realised. Not only did I contract the dreaded Covid-19 virus, but so too did my 88-year-old mother and my Type 1 diabetic sister, the three of us testing positive on the same day. How did this happen? I was literally addicted to hand sanitizer, constantly spraying myself and others in an almost obsessive-compulsive manner, always wore a mask and never ever sat inside a restaurant or close to anyone. I was devastated. I had not received a vaccine, as I was younger than the 60-year-old threshold.

Thankfully my mother had received her first vaccine and although very ill did not require hospitalisation. My sister, also under 60 years of age and unvaccinated, also recovered well.

While I tried to manage the impact of the virus on my healthy, though slightly overweight, body, I went downhill quickly. Home oxygen was not working and a doctor who kindly did a house visit told my husband Julian to “get Dot to hospital immediately, she is still saveable”. Three of my friends had lost their husbands to Covid in the weeks prior (I had not seen them) and all the hospitals were full. I was terrified.

Strangely I had a premonition several months earlier that something was going to happen. As a result, I updated my will, gave Julian power of attorney and carried a list of emergency and medical details on me at all times. I even had a “go bag” stored in the bottom of the cupboard.

In a haze and with perilously low oxygen levels I was rushed off to hospital and placed on high flow oxygen in the emergency section. How I got a bed in the Covid ICU I do not know as the hospital was full to capacity. But by God’s Grace, at 11pm that night, I was whisked off to the Covid ICU.

I vividly remember porters running next to my stretcher through what looked like a cage (on a return visit to the hospital I saw that this cage was in fact the Covid screening center), up into lifts and down passages all the while urgently assuring me, “We’ve got you, we’ve got you”. I was terrified. In my confused state I thought I was being kidnapped.

After two days, my husband received a call that I needed to be intubated and sedated so as not to fight the pipes that would be inserted down my throat and into my bronchi. Covid pneumonia had set in. But while I slipped into oblivion, the nightmare for my family commenced. With no contact whatsoever, only daily updates from the social worker (week days only) providing them with my vitals for the day, I cannot begin to imagine the extreme anxiety and stress they endured.

Gradually waking up three weeks later in the non-Covid ICU and off the ventilator, I tried to make sense of where I was. I could see a hive of activity around me but could barely move my head. I tried to speak but could not make a sound as my vocal cords were damaged from the pipes into my lungs. Confused, unable to move or speak, I watched the world go by. My body was receiving nutrients through a pipe in my nose, my arms were full of drips and my legs wrapped with devices pumping my blood. I would wait for the comforting contractions on my legs and try to count the continuous beeps of the machines. I was alive!

I turned my head to one side after 30 days in ICU to see a familiar and dearly loved face – that of my beautiful son Matthew, who had just turned 21! (No visitors are allowed in the Covid ICU due to the restrictions. I had also missed his birthday.) Gently holding my hand, he started singing softly to me … one hymn after another, comforting me and building my courage. I don’t know how my dear husband arranged the visit, but I was, and am, eternally grateful. It was a turning point.

I have subsequently become aware that visits to ICU were in fact arranged for the family to say goodbye to me. I was on the brink of death — but Matthew’s visit was the catalyst to fight. Fight for my life.

Moved into a private room and not understanding the severity of the Covid complications that I had (Covid pneumonia, encephalopathy, neuropathy and sepsis), I took my battle for life head on, as is my way. Terrible bouts of psychosis and debilitating nightmares, too ghastly to describe, were the order of the day for close on a month. Looking back now, I understand that my experiences of delusion during this time were a result of the encephalopathy and were not real. But at the time, they were intensely vivid and deeply frightening. Throughout this terrifying ordeal, I clutched a wooden cross and prayer beads Matthew had made and would get hysterical if I lost them in the bed sheets.

I was not an easy patient: as the ward sister kindly phrased it, I was “non-compliant”. All I knew was that I was not going to die and that I was going to fight everyone and everything with all my strength of mind and body to stay alive. In one of my bouts of madness I tried to escape and ended up with my legs dangling from the bottom of the bed.

“Where are you trying to go?” the nurses enquired, “you cannot stand and walk on your own? You will hurt yourself.”

“I am not going to die here, I am going home, I will crawl home!” I replied emphatically. After gently being guided back onto the bed, I was restrained.

How Julian managed to arrange visits to me I am not sure, but my family took turns literally sneaking in to see me and these daily visits kept me sane. (I think the ward sister turned a blind eye as during these visits I was marginally compliant and well behaved.)

Waking up one morning I saw the blank TV screen above my bed and thought that I was inside it. I had been terminated and was now in a black box. The madness. Julian had given me a burner cellphone with five icons on it – all I needed to do was press the icon and I could call him, my son, my mom, my sister and a close friend. Distraught, I called Julian. Wanting to be polite, however, I thanked him for terminating me and commiserated that it must have been a tough decision for him.

“But you are not dead Dot,” he insisted, “You are calling me.”

“Well, if I am not dead now, I will be by this afternoon,” I replied. The monsters in my head had clearly got to me. I quietly shrouded myself with a sheet and awaited my fate.

Hardly twenty minutes later, he walked into my room. Another turning point.

“Prove to me that I am alive,” I demanded of him, “I don’t believe you.” He convinced me by gently pinching my arm. He had brought a pot plant with pink flowers, placing it where I could see it, and commanded me to look at the plant and verbalise a mantra to the plant every time I had a bad thought. “You are fighting the evil forces of Covid Dot, do not give into them, refuse these thoughts”.

This became a mantra spoken over and over: “Bad thoughts, Julian says leave Dot alone!” It helped; I was alive!

With the help of my brilliant doctors, hectic medication and Divine Intervention, slowly the madness left me, my body and mind healed, and I was ready to be discharged. Not home but to rehab. My body was weak; I could not stand by myself or walk. Stairs filled me with anxiety. I had short term memory loss and was confused. Three weeks of intense physical and cognitive rehabilitation ensued and finally I was declared fit for release home. Three long months of hospitalization and rehabilitation. I was one of the lucky ones. Many of the friends I made in rehab had lost limbs —amputations below the knee due to blood clots, a horrid side effect of Covid-19. Such brave and courageous souls. So why am I sharing my intensely private and intimate journey with you?

Going through such a traumatic experience and nearly losing one’s life causes one to re-evaluate one’s priorities and commitments, and this is indeed what I have been going through in the past weeks during my recovery. As a result, I have dedicated the process of finding my purpose in life to all those who have tragically passed away from Covid-19, as well as to those who have fought and won the battle, and those who are still doing so. In particular if I can convince just one person to be vaccinated then opening my heart to you will have been worthwhile. I could not receive a vaccination in June as I was below the age threshold at the time. But believe me, on my first week home, I proudly walked into a local vaccination site to receive my vaccine. What a privilege!

I embrace the life that God has given me. I treasure my husband after 33 years of marriage — I love him more today than ever before. I value and protect my health. Thankfully now double vaccinated, I am working and driving and leading a fulfilling life.

My heartfelt thanks to the specialists and nursing staff at Unitas Hospital, the therapists at Meulmed Rehab and my family and friends and the legions of people across the world who prayed for me. Above all I give thanks to God for giving me life.

Dot Field is the founder of Dot Field Consulting. She is a fellow of the Institute of Director’s South Africa, trustee of the Old Mutual Foundation, member of the ABC (advocacy, behaviour and communications) board committee of the GBVF Response Fund1 and past secretary and chair of the brand and reputation committee of the International Women’s Forum South Africa (2019 – 2021).

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