The year 2020 has been a very precarious, apprehensive, and uncertain for people across the globe. The COVID-19 has caused overwhelming pain and disruption for many and has made people begin to review their own mortality and assess the safety of their loved ones.
My COVID-19 survival story begins with the death of my dear sister, Ngozi Janice Okonkwo who passed away at 4:30 a.m. on June 4, 2020, after battling breast cancer for close to two years.
She had been receiving treatment for her condition at a UK cancer clinic but when the Covid-19 lockdowns began, she was stuck in Nigeria and eventually succumbed to her illness. Her death caused unimaginable pain and grief to my family and me. My mother, most especially, could not get over the death of her only daughter.
After my sister died, the family made the grave mistake of having condolence visits at her residence. We thought we could have people safely visit the home of my late sister to pay their respects.
We enforced wearing of facemasks; we ensured everyone who entered the compound had their hands sanitised; we thought we were safe but we were so wrong.
My mother decided to stay at my sister’s house after my sister’s death to receive people who were coming to condole with the family. She was heartbroken but she wanted to stay close to her grandchildren in order to provide solace.
I had a bad feeling my mother was being exposed as several people who entered the house took off their masks, while others in the heat of the moment held my mother’s hands to offer comfort thereby putting aside the required social distancing measures. There was so much emotion in the air that at some point, I personally put aside COVID-19 related caution myself and just grieved.
Mother’s health deteriorates
Three days after the death of my sister, my mother finally decided to return home. Her health immediately started to deteriorate. First, she was unable to walk, overnight, and we were all shocked. As the days progressed, she started feeling very lethargic, her speech began to fade and I began to notice she could barely string a sentence together.
Anytime I tried to speak to her over the phone, her voice sounded laboured, she was always tired.
We were all concerned about her. I thought the pain and grief she was going through was overwhelming her but I knew my mother, I knew how strong a woman she was and I was baffled that even the death of my sister could hit her so badly.
On Monday, June 15, my father eventually decided to have her admitted to a private ward at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH. She was immediately placed on oxygen and constantly monitored.
We still did not know what was wrong with her, but we prayed and were hopeful for a positive outcome. Two after her admission at the hospital, we received the first bad news – my mother had pneumonia.
We were all shocked and wondered how she contracted the disease. The hospital immediately carried out a COVID-19 test as a precautionary measure while her treatment continued.
On Thursday, June 18, I visited my mother at the hospital during the night. She could not talk and refused to open her eyes. I begged her to open her eyes because I wanted to ensure the glassy eyes of death had not set in. When she eventually opened her eyes, they were clear and filled with life.
I felt comforted and hopeful. I told her to hang in there and stay with us in order to hold her granddaughter, my daughter, who had been born exactly one week after the death of my sister.
I left her bedside that night with the intention to see her the next day.
On Friday, June 19, we received the more bad news that my mother had tested positive for COVID-19. I was shocked. I never had the slightest inclination that she had contracted the disease.
I began to fear for her life. She was immediately transferred to the isolation ward at LUTH to begin treatment but we were so worried. We had no insight into how she was going to be treated since the isolation ward was a highly restricted area and nobody could visit her. We prayed she would be taken care of and left her fate in the hands of God.
On Saturday, June 20, we received the final bad news, my mother had passed away at 5:30 p.m. She lost the battle to live and joined her beloved daughter in heaven. My heart was crushed, I could not believe I had lost my sweet mother just two weeks after losing my dear sister.
I immediately began to think about my father, how would I inform him about the loss of his wife who had been by his side for about 48 years? The thought terrified me but he had to be informed. The next day, I drove to my father’s house and broke the sad news to him.
Due to the fact that quite a number of our family members had been exposed to the virus at the hospital, we all decided to immediately commence self-isolation procedures until we were all tested. Getting tested in Lagos proved to be very difficult; a number of designated test centres were unable to perform tests.
Through my brother’s connections at the Federal Medical Centre in Lagos, we were eventually able to book an appointment for a COVID-19 test for June 25.
At midnight on Tuesday, June 23, I began having a mild dry cough followed by some congestion in my chest. Due to my extensive research on COVID-19, I immediately recognised that these were related symptoms. I found it very hard to sleep and began to wonder if I had the virus. When the day broke, I felt fine and put my fears aside thinking it was probably my mind playing tricks on me.
On Thursday, June 25, I went for my test appointment at the Federal Medical Centre. The test itself was a bit unpleasant but I felt confident that I would test negative and returned home in high spirits.
Beast comes in the night
My battle with COVID-19 officially commenced on Friday, June 26. I woke up suddenly around 1 a.m. to an intense fever and my body felt ravaged from head to toe. I began to feel as if my lungs were filling up with water as if I was drowning; my chest was so congested and I was struggling to breathe properly. I also began to feel intense pain in my upper back. I was so confused because I had never felt so sick in my entire life although I tried not to panic. Immediately I got hot water in a bowl and mixed a balm in the water, then proceeded to inhale the vapour from the hot water. It brought instant relief to my lungs.
My cousin in the US who is a medical doctor with experience treating COVID-19 patients advised me not to lie on my back and to avoid going to sleep that night to ensure I stayed conscious. I tried lying on my chest, but the pain was intense, so I ended up lying on my side.
As I battled the virus, my brother-in-law ignored the curfew and drove over to my house around 2 a.m. to give me a respiratory antibiotic called Azithromycin. Within two hours of taking the drug, I felt much better – the fever subsided and I was stable.
The experience was very traumatic, I could not believe how vicious and unrelenting the virus could be. When day broke, I felt so relieved and grateful to be alive. I then called my wife over the phone to discuss my plans for the day and during our conversation, I felt a tingling sensation in my nose and proceeded to sneeze.
Once I sneezed, I felt a thunderous eruption of unimaginable intense pain in my upper back causing me to toss my phone in the air while screaming in pain. I fell unto my bed and writhed in pain for a couple of minutes. I was terrified about what had just happened and immediately concluded that sneezing was out of the question henceforth.
On Saturday, June 27, I had a normal day and my health appeared stable. The pain in my back had subsided but I noticed I was beginning to feel a slight pain in my lungs anytime I coughed. By 7:30 p.m. I missed a call from an unknown number but I suspected the missed call was from the Federal Medical Centre. I was anxious but I finally built the courage to call the number back and my suspicion was confirmed.
I spoke to a representative from the Federal Medical Centre and learned that my COVID-19 test result was positive. I was not surprised by the news – I was expecting it. I felt sad about the news but I was hopeful, as I knew COVID-19 was not a death sentence. I am young and strong, and I could beat it.
The first stint at Paelon Memorial Hospital
On the evening of June 28, I drove myself to Paelon Memorial Hospital. I was admitted and immediately taken into a room to have some tests done and an IV inserted. As I scanned across the room, I noticed a young man of Asian descent in the bathroom, hooked up to an oxygen tank, and struggling to wash his own back.
The sight of this young man struggling to do such a simple task scared me to my marrow. Is this going to be my fate? I did not know. What I did know was that to protect my mental state, I had to be moved to a private room, which the hospital proceeded to do.
My first night at the hospital went well. I had a slight cough and mild pain in my upper back, but that was it. The doctor on duty put me on a number of drugs including Hydroxychloroquine, Dexamethasone, and Azithromycin. The Hydroxychloroquine was only administered to me after having an Electrocardiogram (ECG) test done with satisfactory results to ensure my heart was fit to withstand the effects of the drug.
On Monday, June 29, my condition was very stable. My x-ray results were analysed and no issues were detected in the lungs although I had been informed by doctors in the US that a CT scan would have been more useful in the circumstances. My blood work came back fine. My oxygen level (Sp02) was between 95-97 per cent having been informed that using a pulse oximeter, a normal reading is typically between 95 and 100 per cent. I felt good at this point and began to relax.
Around 12:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 30, the virus began to ravage my body again. I began to develop a high temperature, fever set in, I began to shiver and a strange pain started to propel through my entire body. I was so restless and I could not sleep.
The nurse sponged me with cold water and gave me paracetamol to control my fever. Within a couple of hours, I was fine again – the paracetamol worked. The rest of the day was fine except that I noticed I had lost my sense of taste. Food tasted like chalk but I forced myself to eat properly due to a large amount of medication I was taking every day.
Wednesday, July 1st was a great day for me at the hospital. I felt good, with no symptoms whatsoever. I decided to binge on Games of Thrones throughout the day, and the nurses jokingly began to complain that I turned the hospital into a cinema but I did not care.
I felt healthy and believed I was going to be discharged the next day. However, at 12:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 2, the virus returned with vengeance. I was wracked with a terrible fever, I trembled uncontrollably and was shaking so much I thought I had lost a tooth.
An intense pain reverberated through my body. The nurse advised me to take a shower and gave me paracetamol but this time it did not work. The intense fever continued. Later that morning, a doctor assessed me and gave an injection to reduce the fever. Within two hours, the fever subsided. I was grateful to the doctor for her intervention. My condition stabilised and I felt great afterward. The fever was gone and I decided it was time to leave the hospital and complete my recovery at home.
But the doctor at the hospital strongly advised against it. She worked out the number of days that had elapsed since my first symptom and determined that I had entered the cytokine storm phase of my illness. This is a period where COVID-19 patients are highly vulnerable to intense attack from the virus, which could lead to sudden death.
She urged me to spend one more day in the hospital but I was determined to leave, partly due to the daily costs of being admitted. I felt so good and I did not feel it was necessary to spend any more money on hospital admission.
As I proceeded to leave the hospital that evening, the doctor came up to me, looked into my eyes, and said, Michael, if you have any issues tonight please return to the hospital immediately. She then walked away. I thought about this for a few seconds but my mind was made up and I walked out of the hospital.
As I drove back home, I was so elated and could not wait to relax on my sofa and sleep in my bed. I planned to self-isolate for one more week at home, so I arranged for my wife and daughter to move to my mother inlaw’s house. I was going to be home alone for one week.
At home, I immediately checked my oxygen level using a pulse oximeter that the hospital had given me. My Sp02 was at 97 per cent – perfect! I had nothing to worry about it. I then had a lengthy phone call with my brother in New York during which he questioned why I had left the hospital considering the fever I experienced the night before.
I explained that I was feeling very well and we wrapped up the call. At that point, it was 11 p.m. and I was quite tired so I decided to call it a night and go to bed.
Dance with death
At 12:30 a.m. on Friday, July 3, I suddenly woke up suffocating. I could not breathe and I was having a burning fever. For the next 15 minutes, I battled to get up from my bed, reach my phone, and call for help.
I tried everything to get up, but I had no energy in my body. I rolled on the bed in pain struggling to breathe, coughing, and gagging but to no avail. I kept telling myself I had to somehow stay conscious or risk dying on this bed. At some point, everything suddenly went quiet; there was total silence in the room. I could not feel pain anymore. I believed I was having an out-of-body experience and thought I was dead.
I felt a sense of pain and guilt that I had died and left my young wife a widow with a baby less than a month old. How on earth would anyone be able to tell my father that his youngest child was dead less than two weeks after the death of his wife and a month after the death of his only daughter?
I prayed to God to save me and within a couple of seconds, I snapped out of unconsciousness. The pain was back and I was suffocating again but I was so happy the pain had returned. It meant the fight was not over yet.
I mustered every atom of energy left in my body to get up from the bed and staggered towards my desk towards my phone. I was too weak to pick it up so I just tapped it. Thank God for the touchscreen.
I began calling for help. I called my brother-in-law who lived close by but he did not pick up. I called my aunt that lived in the same estate as I did but she did not pick up. I called my wife but she also did not pick up.
I called my brother in Lagos but he too did not pick up. It was past midnight after all. I began to lose hope at that point. I was losing consciousness and I knew if I fell unconscious before calling for help my corpse would probably be found in the afternoon. I called my father but he did not pick up.
I was beginning to fade away, then I tried calling my brother one more time, and thankfully he picked up. Immediately told him I could not breathe and that I needed help immediately.
I hung up, then tried calling my wife again and she also answered this time. I told her the exact same thing I had told my brother and then I hung up. I could not stay on the phone for long as I needed to conserve the little energy I had left.
By virtue of a miracle, I still maintained clarity of thought throughout my ordeal. I asked myself, Michael, what do you need to do to survive tonight? The first thing that came to mind was to unlock my front doors before I lost consciousness.
It would take at least 30 minutes to breakdown the front doors if someone came to my flat to rescue me and found the doors locked.
I dragged myself to the front of my flat and unlocked the inner and outer doors. I then asked myself again, what else do I need to do to survive tonight? I remembered the guard dogs that are released from their cages at midnight to secure the compound.
I knew nobody would be able to enter the compound with the dogs lose. I immediately called my neighbour and asked him to lock the dogs in their cages, due to a medical emergency. As God would have it, he swiftly locked the dogs in their cages within a minute of my call.
I staggered back to my bedroom to get my pulse oximeter. I needed to know what my current oxygen level was. I placed the device on my finger and waited for a reading. Twenty seconds went by and no reading; I began to wonder if my body had totally run out of oxygen.
After 30 seconds, a reading popped up on the device monitor, my Sp02 level was at 74 per cent. I was shocked at the reading as at that level there probably would not be much oxygen going to my brain. I realised I did not have much conscious time left.
A few minutes later, my brother-in-law and my uncle arrived at my flat at great risk to themselves because I was highly infectious. Apparently, my wife had called my brother in New York who had managed to reach one of my late sister’s daughters who now woke up my brother-in-law. Serendipitously, he came over with what would turn out to be my lifesaver, a nebulizer.
A nebulizer is a machine used to change liquid medication into a vapour that you can inhale. It works by pumping pressurised air through the liquid to form a fine mist, which can be inhaled through a mask or mouthpiece.
With a nebulizer, one can inhale medication (steroids for example) directly into the lungs, helping ease airway inflammation and allowing for easier breathing. My brother-in-law looked at me and asked if I wanted to be nebulized to which I immediately agreed.
After a few minutes of being nebulized, my Sp02 level increased to 77 per cent and quickly thereafter to 81 per cent. My breathing slowly began to improve. My brother-in-law had saved my life.
While I was being nebulized, my brother in Lagos had arranged for an ambulance to take me back to Paelon Memorial Hospital. The ambulance finally arrived and I was immediately placed on oxygen. The driver drove to the hospital at the top speed. It was a bumpy ride. At the Lekki Toll Gate, the driver screamed at the attendant to let us go through.
He kept on shouting to let them know that I was dying and we had to be let through at once. At that point, I realised my condition was still critical and I was definitely not out of the woods yet.
A second stint at Paelon Memorial Hospital
I was returned to Paelon Memorial Hospital, and it felt as if I was back to square one but in a much worse life-threatening state. I was quickly moved to a room in the hospital and placed on constant oxygen.
A nurse was on hand to monitor me during the night. I cried that night. I could not believe I was in such a critical state and I was not sure if I was going to survive anymore. I prayed to God that night and left my fate in His hands.
When day broke, the doctor on duty was at my bedside, she looked so unhappy and I found it hard to look at her because she had warned me but I refused to listen. I had an x-ray and blood test done. The x-ray confirmed I had pneumonia and the blood test determined it was bacterial pneumonia. I was immediately placed on a high dose of antibiotics and dexamethasone administered through IV.
Being on constant oxygen was a challenge for me. I needed help from the nurse to move my oxygen tank anytime I needed to use the bathroom. One morning, I was having my bath and I took off my oxygen mask to wash my face.
As I exited the bathroom, I suddenly could not breathe anymore. I immediately alerted the nurse who increased my oxygen supply but it did not help. The nurse had to nebulize me in order to get me breathing again. It was a scary experience and made me realise how dependent I was on the oxygen.
The emotional trauma of my condition was made worse for my family as we had just lost my sister and my mother within the past month, and planning was underway for their funerals.
As the days passed, I slowly began to recover and felt better. My oxygen dependence began to reduce and the nurses slowly began to wean me off oxygen and encourage me to breathe unassisted.
On July 10, I had a rapid COVID-19 test carried out and it came back negative. I was so happy, knowing that my awful battle with the virus was coming to an end. The hospital finally discharged me on the same day.
I was so appreciative and grateful for the high level of care I received from the doctors and ever so helpful and cheerful nurses at Paelon Memorial Hospital.
The healthcare workers at the hospital are dedicated to saving lives and I could not thank them enough for saving my life.
The days since my discharge from the hospital have not been easy. I am constantly tired and restless. Any little form of exertion causes lethargy and sometimes makes me ill. I also have problems sleeping. I currently suffer from insomnia and tend to wake up every hour when I try to sleep at night. I usually give up on sleep all together at 3 a.m. every morning. I have been told that these issues are usual for recovering COVID-19 patients and I believe I will be fully healed and ready to get on with my life at full speed very soon.
I am grateful to God to be alive and on the mend. My perception of life will never be the same again after my COVID-19 experience. Life is so delicate and needs to be treated with care and never taken for granted.
To all those who still have doubts or have not taken due precautions, COVID-19 is certainly real and horrible to experience so do stay safe.