Covid-19 pandemic

Covid-19 survivors | Scars and pain after beating a dread virus

For some, the worst part of testing positive was the possibility that they might never see their loved ones again

19 July 2020 - 00:00 By Sunday Times reporters
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A doctor treats a patient with Covid-19 at the Tshwane District Hospital. The number of cases in SA has soared to well over 300,000, but so far about half that number have recovered. About one-third of reported cases are in Gauteng, the worst-hit province.
A doctor treats a patient with Covid-19 at the Tshwane District Hospital. The number of cases in SA has soared to well over 300,000, but so far about half that number have recovered. About one-third of reported cases are in Gauteng, the worst-hit province.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi

For some, the worst part of testing positive was the possibility that they might never see their loved ones again.

For others it was debilitating depression, while many were consumed by guilt over possibly infecting others.

Survivors tell their harrowing stories of how they went to battle against Covid-19 — and won.


Natalie Botman.
Natalie Botman.
Image: Supplied

A soft voice said: ‘Be still and know I am God’

As a hospital manager in Cape Town, Natalie Botman decided to self-treat when she developed flu-like symptoms in April.

But when two colleagues were admitted to intensive care, “it dawned on me that my flu could actually be Covid-19”.

She was admitted to hospital, where the patient next to her died of Covid-19.

“I started to cry, imagining I will soon follow suit. I thought of my son, who is only 12, and imagined him without a mother … the anxiety was so overwhelming.

“One day I was lying in a prone position when I heard a soft voice saying, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ After that I felt this calmness coming over me and that encouraged me so much.” — Sipokazi Fokazi

Chief Vuyile Galada.
Chief Vuyile Galada.
Image: covid19 survivor

‘A lot of people keep their Covid-19 a secret’

Chief Vuyile Galada, a traditional leader in Langa, Cape Town, wants to destigmatise Covid-19 after he beat the illness last month.

He developed only mild symptoms, including a headache, body aches and a scratchy throat. His two children also tested positive and had mild symptoms.

“When I go round and tell people that I had Covid-19, some people simply laugh at me and tell me straight that they don’t believe a word I say,” he said.

“People don’t want to believe it because a lot of people who have tested positive keep this a secret as they feel ashamed.”

Former boxer Galada, who self-isolated at home, said the inactivity was frustrating. — Sipokazi Fokazi

Sarah Adams
Sarah Adams
Image: Supplied

Surviving at 81 — for the grandchildren

“It was like my legs wouldn’t work,” said 81-year-old Sarah Adams of the moment she realised she was seriously ill.

The grandmother from Ocean View in Cape Town had toppled out of bed — Covid-19 literally knocked her flat.

“I sat on the floor and pulled the bedding off the bed because it was cold. I put the bedding around me and fell asleep,” she said.

Her family took her to the local hospital where she tested positive.

As her health deteriorated, Adams moved to the Hospital of Hope at the International Convention Centre.

By week two she was well enough to talk to her elderly neighbour.

“She said, my child, we must be strong. We have grandchildren waiting for us.”— Bobby Jordan

Smangaliso Mkhwanazi.
Smangaliso Mkhwanazi.
Image: smangaliso

No state bed, no PPE — and barely able to walk

When he caught the virus, Smangaliso Mkhwanazi, 36, couldn’t find a bed at a state hospital, was unable to get paramedics to transport him because they didn’t have protective gear, and had to fork out R20,000 to secure a bed in a private hospital.

“I could barely walk. I called an ambulance at Ngwelezane and the paramedics explained that they had no PPE [personal protective equipment] to protect themselves. They kept on calling me through the night to see how I was doing.”

The following day his condition worsened and he drove himself to the Life Empangeni Private Hospital where he was put on a drip. Two days later he was admitted to Ngwelezane ICU and spent 15 days in recovery. — Orrin Singh

Sheila Hlonjwa.
Sheila Hlonjwa.
Image: sheila

‘One day I just screamed at the top of my voice’

The thing that still preys on the mind of Sheila Hlonjwa, 53, a month after she was discharged from Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, is women murmuring “my children … who is going to look after my children?” “Those utterances became like a song,” said Hlonjwa, from Langa.

Hlonjwa spent two weeks on a ventilator in intensive care and said she was preoccupied with thoughts of her own mortality.

“Seeing people dying on a daily basis was the most traumatic experience for me.

“It was such a depressing environment that one day I just screamed at the top of my voice, and I started to sob and prayed in a loud voice.” — Sipokazi Fokazi


Zimkhitha Majali.
Zimkhitha Majali.
Image: Supplied

Harnessing the power of positive thinking

Zimkhitha Majali, 36, thought she had been handed a death sentence when she tested positive on June 17.

The Johannesburg teacher had been “overcautious” since SA recorded its first Covid-19 case.

Then she developed breathing problems, severe headaches, loss of appetite and a fluctuating temperature.

“What I had dreaded for the past four months was confirmed; I had tested positive for Covid-19,” she said.

“I felt the world slipping under my feet … It was as if I had been handed a death sentence.”

But she decided she would not let the virus win.

“A positive mind is key when you contract this virus. If you think negatively, everything that flows from those thoughts is destructive.” — Philani Nombembe

Lawrence Ndlovu .
Lawrence Ndlovu .
Image: Supplied

'Even after 20-odd days, I feel I’m not fully there'

“A storm in your system” is how Johannesburg Catholic priest Father Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu describes Covid-19.

As someone with comorbidities, Ndlovu said he had been concerned about contracting the virus. He said it started with flu-like symptoms, but after completing a course of antibiotics and still not getting better, he got tested.

When he received a text message confirming he was positive, Ndlovu said many thoughts raced through his head.

“I’m alone in my house and get a text that says positive. I didn’t know what to do and was not sure if I was losing my breath or was having a panic attack. It was an hour or so of everything going wild.”He chose to go public with his infection.

“On some days even talking on the phone was hard and I had to sound OK when I spoke to those who called because everyone is going through their own thing at the moment,” he said.

In the first few days of his quarantine, he said he had to go to Milpark Hospital for a consultation as his vital signs were very low. He said he spent about five hours at the hospital waiting to be helped.

“What is happening in our hospitals is frightening. Ambulances were queueing, doctors had their hands full. “Even after 20-odd days, I feel I’m not fully there. There is a certain clumsiness that I know is unlike me and my speech is sometimes delayed.”

Though he is feeling much better, he said he still struggles to go out because he feels anxious. Not being able to give pastoral support to his parishioners is the hardest part because he had previously ministered to families that tested positive. — Belinda Pheto

Joan and Alfred Cordier.
Joan and Alfred Cordier.
Image: Supplied

'Some people showed their nasty side because of this virus'

When Durban pensioner Joan Cordier, 60, was admitted to a government isolation facility after testing positive for Covid-19, her worry was not so much the virus but how she would survive 14 days without cigarettes.

Cordier, a resident at the Association for the Aged facility, has since recovered and is still in awe of how she went two weeks without lighting up.

When Cordier and her husband Alfred, 65, both contracted Covid-19, it was not only the virus that left them drained but also the negative reaction they received from some residents at the elderly-care facility.

The couple have since regained their strength after testing positive about a month ago, but the stigma of the virus continues to linger.

“I’ve been through a lot emotionally. I realised that many people are ignorant. I have been stigmatised and one resident even sympathised with Alfred after we were out of isolation because she thought I was dead. That was just too much,” said Joan.

Joan spent two weeks in an isolation facility in Clairwood. Alfred was in isolation at their care-home. She described the isolation facility as modern and new.

“I had a Cuban doctor and a local specialist monitoring me. I was put on an antibiotic because of my chest, had immune boosters and used an asthma pump.”

She was back home after two weeks.Alfred, who felt better within three days, said he was strong emotionally but felt attacked by a few fellow residents.

“Thank goodness this happened because now I know who our real friends are. Some people showed their nasty side because of this virus.” — Suthentira Govender

Sarah Ferguson.
Sarah Ferguson.
Image: Supplied

‘It’s taken three months to feel normal again’

Endurance swimmer, Guinness world record-holder and physiotherapist Sarah Ferguson was one of the early cases of Covid-19 in SA.

She says it took three months for her to feel “normal” again.

“I feel fantastic now, but for a long time I was convinced Covid-19 had unleashed my bilharzia again as I felt quite similar to when I had bilharzia — lethargic, loss of appetite, high heart rate, super-tired and just generally a bit depressed. I developed post-viral pneumonia and myocarditis after Covid-19, which is fairly common, which is why it took so long for me to fully recover,” said Ferguson, who lives in Durban.

She said she felt responsible, guilty and a bit like a criminal. “The hardest part for me was the responsibility I felt for all my clients and the people I had been in contact with prior to my symptoms and prior to my positive test result.” — Nivashni Nair

Tammie Mqashane
Tammie Mqashane
Image: Supplied

‘Sunshine and muthi helped me whip Covid’

Tammie Mqashane said adding home remedies to the prescribed ones and getting out into the sun whenever possible helped him beat his Covid-19 infection.

After he tested positive for the virus, Mqashane, a manager with the Eastern Cape transport department, “continued with my medication and my wife made me home remedies like ukufutha using leaves of different trees and umhlonyane.

“I was able to get out of the house and spend a few minutes in the sun, walking around the premises to stretch my legs. This fast-tracked my recovery and I regained my strength.”

He suspects he caught the virus at his aunt’s funeral in Mdantsane, but “no-one invites the virus and it can infect anyone, any time … the rich and poor, educated and uneducated, young and old”. — Mpumzi Zuzile

Bruce Gibbs
Bruce Gibbs
Image: Supplied

‘It was really rough — it felt like being strangled’

For Johannesburg banker and fitness trainer Bruce Gibbs, 38, testing positive for Covid-19 brought a wash of emotion.

“Those two weeks of isolation were tough. Knowing that I was positive prompted a lot of introspection because you’re completely alone with your thoughts,” he said.

“I had to confront the reality that I had a virus that is killing people … interrogating myself on how many people I may have given it to also took a toll,” he said.

Gibbs — in prime physical condition — tested positive on June 22 and had three “really rough” days.

“It took me hours to summon the energy to get out of bed.”

He said: “It felt like I was being strangled. I’m fine now and my isolation period is up, but now I have to stop and think about what will happen to me if I catch it again.” — Jeff Wicks

Dr Phumudzo Ndwambi.
Dr Phumudzo Ndwambi.
Image: Supplied

‘I honestly felt like I was going to die alone’

A week into isolation after testing positive, Dr Phumudzo Ndwambi, 33, began making a list of who could attend her funeral. Two of her patients with advanced lung cancer had by then died from Covid-19.

To protect her family, the Chris Hani Baragwanath surgeon moved into an apartment in Morningside, Sandton.

“It seemed like someone had sucked out all my energy … I honestly felt like I was going to die alone in the apartment,” she said.

Her lowest point was hearing her family cry during calls.

“When we’re wearing our masks together and we’re social-distancing together it feels like we are all keeping safe from the demon virus — as opposed to when you have it, you feel like you are the demon virus,” she said.She returned to work on July 6. — Leonie Wagner

Lucinda Bredell.
Lucinda Bredell.
Image: Supplied

‘I have comorbidities, how do I deal with this?’

The last 11 years of health challenges and depression prepared her family for the Covid-19 infection that hit her and her son, says Lucinda Bredell.

“To fight anything without a strong mind is difficult. Depression was the worst thing I’ve ever had to deal with, it was worse than Covid,” the George woman said.

She was infected after her teenage son got the virus during a Youth Day hiking trip, not knowing one of his friends had it. On June 27, Bredell, 46, woke up with a sore throat, a runny nose, loss of smell and taste. Soon after she tested positive for Covid-19.

“I was overcome with fear. There was this sudden shock — I have comorbidities, how do I deal with this now?

“My son’s biggest fear when he heard his friend tested positive was what if he gave it to me and I die.” — Leonie Wagner

Beatrice Sandi.
Beatrice Sandi.
Image: Supplied

'A new frightful reality stood before me …’

Throughout her 18-day hospital stay, Beatrice Sandi, 58, a manager in the Eastern Cape health department, struggled to make sense of it all.

Sandi, who is responsible for procuring equipment for Covid wards around the province, suspects she contracted the virus in the line of duty.

“I had witnessed many serious Covid-19 emergencies, and I knew what to expect,” she said.

She spent 11 days on a ventilator in ICU and seven days on high oxygen.

“A new frightful reality stood before me, but I had every confidence in the members of the care team at Life St George’s in Port Elizabeth and later Frere Hospital in East London. Everyone was concerned, compassionate, and caring.”

This week her husband, Ntsikelelo Sandi, 61, was also hospitalised with Covid-19. — Mpumzi Zuzile

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