Covid-19 survivor, 89, raises 'funds for families of healthcare workers who've died from' virus
Surviving Covid gave Bill Wedderburn a new mission in life
Recovery from Covid-19 at the age of 89, at the same time as living with chronic kidney disease and prostate cancer, has given Bill Wedderburn a new lease on life.
Now, every step he takes is inspired by the thought of the health-care workers who have died of the virus and the loved ones they left behind. And he aims to walk 900km before his 90th birthday next year to raise funds for them.
Wedderburn, who will mark his milestone birthday on June 9, is in remission from prostate cancer, and has improved his chronic kidney disease by following a strict diet. “I did my own research, cut out red meat, cut down on sugar and started eating loads of broccoli and asparagus,” he said.
“I managed to improve my health and actually get back to stage three. They reckon I can keep going on stage three.”
Now, after surviving a two-week hospitalisation for Covid, he is setting up the Healthcare Workers Family Fund SA to support the bereaved families of health workers.
Wedderburn has been haunted by images of nurse Hlengiwe Mbeje, 36, who died of the virus shortly before Wedderburn was admitted to Netcare Kingsway Hospital in Durban. Her smiling picture on a tribute table caught his eye. “When you are sick with Covid, lying there with nothing to do, you work out ways to cure all the world's problems. I thought about the N95 masks and how that means it stops 95% of stuff getting through - so it's not foolproof,” said the retired metallurgist.
“It means the people looking after you can get Covid through their masks. Even if they have had it before and if they are vaccinated. I kept thinking about that young woman, and all the others like her. They are breadwinners. What happens to their families?”
Wedderburn has started his fundraising effort by walking 2km a day around his retirement village in Scottburgh, KwaZulu-Natal, and aims to increase the distance and clock 100km for every decade of his life before he turns 90. For every kilometre he misses, he will pay R10 into his fund.
In a broad Scottish accent, he described how he and his late wife came to SA in 1957. “Doreen and I were in Trafalgar Square [in London] and saw South Africa House. So we walked in and asked if there were opportunities here for metallurgists - and there were.”
They settled in Vereeniging and moved to Bedfordview in 1962, raising daughter Linda and son Allan. Wedderburn moved to Scottburgh after Doreen's death in 2018.
He tested positive for Covid-19 in January, and was hospitalised after his temperature spiked. “I had no idea what was going on ... I spent one entire day coughing and all I could think was 'Oh God, this is it'.”
The family got granddaughter Chantelle Guise-Brown - a third-year medical student at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town - in to see him on her 21st birthday. “All I could see was a young lady in a bunny suit. When I realised it was Chantelle, now that was a real boost to my morale, I can tell you.”
Days later he was discharged into the care of his family, still on oxygen but dedicated to his new cause. He has since roped in daughter Linda Wedderburn, a sustainability leader; her husband Charles Guise-Brown, an IT executive; family friend Dr Basil Stathoulis; former Springbok captain Jean de Villiers of wealth management company Citadel; and advocate Karthi Govender.
They have collected some money and have a Back-a-Buddy system going, but they have not yet started reaching beneficiaries.
“I want to achieve three things. The first is to raise funds for the families of healthcare workers who have died from Covid. And I want to draw a collection of hero stories and messages of thanks and appreciation,” said Wedderburn.
“And I want to encourage people to get vaccinated because it's the one thing we can do to protect healthcare workers.”
Anyone wanting to send Wedderburn a message or find out more about the fund can email info@CovidHWFF.co.za.
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