'I am alive': Thembisa Mdoda-Nxumalo lives another day
Aspasia Karras with Thembisa Mdoda-Nxumalo
I am sitting in a glorious, buzzy courtyard at the Bird Café in Birdhaven. It feels like a blessing. A blissful, hopeful moment in a year that has been impossibly difficult.
The sunshine and the sounds of people revelling in the joys of the summer afternoon, the clinking of glasses and the popping of champagne bottles reinforcing just how much we all need a well-deserved break.
Thembisa Mdoda-Nxumalo and I are chatting like old friends. This must happen a lot with her because, I won’t lie, I feel naturally connected to her and her ebullient family by mere virtue of their blanket presence on our screens and in our heads. Here she is now like the super fun, warm sister you never had.
Underscoring all this is the feeling of insane luck — the fact we can actually sit here is because Thembisa has managed to dodge a bullet. She has had such a horrible time of it for the past eight months.
They discovered Covid antibodies. Everything went downhill from there, lungs collapsed, the heartThembisa Mdoda-Nxumalo
“I am alive — more than anything — it’s good to be here, I am so grateful to be here — we are living in such a crazy world right now, two weeks ago I was in the hospital.”
Thembisa has had a year of the long Covid. And it is very scary. “I don’t know when I got Covid, it was asymptomatic — but in late March I got an allergic reaction on the set of The Queen and I went into anaphylactic shock.
"When I got to the hospital they discovered Covid antibodies. Everything went downhill from there, lungs collapsed, the heart. I was in ICU on a ventilator, my oxygen levels were high then low, it was crazy.
“As soon as I would get home, a day or two later I was back again. This last time I got back I had been there for a week-and-a-half. I told my husband just take me back home, I am taking control of my life.”
As we sit here tucking into our salads you would never know — she is so vital, unleashing that marvellous Mdoda laugh that should be canned and sold for a sweet fortune.
“There are days when you don’t know how you will do it. The day Shona Ferguson died — they had to sedate me because I was thinking: he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he goes to gym, he goes to church — and then he was gone. I woke up the next day and I was, OK, fight. That is literally what my family was saying all the time — you have to fight. But it was so hard. My little boy is two years old and I have not seen him properly all this time.
“I also went to therapy. I thought this is as good a time as any to start. I did not go when my mom died in 2009. I learnt how much I love my family. Now I check in on them all the time. And I learnt to really listen and to speak to my children.
“And the whole thing, as corny as it sounds, starts in the mind. It is a mental health struggle. How do you get out of bed? You have to mentally charge yourself and get yourself motivated.”
The universe is listening, your ancestors are listening, you are articulating it — the universe is there for us. If you speak up you can speak it into existence
Her approach is deeply grounded. “I start with prayers and candles every morning. I speak to my mom. I have created an incredible connection with my ancestors. I don’t know who this new Thembisa is but I am enjoying navigating her. At 38 it feels like I have been born again. It feels good to get to know myself again and to be confident in the decisions I make.
“When I walked out of hospital, I was taking control — what I want to do and how I want to do it has become key. I think it will help with my work and my performances. I felt like I went on holiday — a very painful holiday. I had so many injections every day, I have so many marks on my back — it is like a tattoo of what I went through.”
It is that kind of conversation, so I ask her what she would tell her younger self?
“My advice is: speak up. It is a lot heavier to keep it all in your heart. What is the worst that can happen? They can say no.
"That is what my mother said — even if you say it to yourself, the universe is listening, your ancestors are listening, you are articulating it — the universe is there for us. If you speak up you can speak it into existence. Your voice is your biggest asset.”
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