'Running a marathon on the bed': COVID-19 survivors describe their struggles with the coronavirus
SINGAPORE: By the time she found out she was afflicted with COVID-19, the worst had already been over for her.
The 39-year-old Singaporean woman - also known as case number 33 - had spent a week unconscious in the intensive care unit as doctors fought to save her.
She was finally given a clean bill of health and discharged earlier this week. The woman and her sister who both attend Life Church and Missions at Paya Lebar spoke to CNA about their battle with the disease.
The 39-year-old was initially warded at Sengkang General Hospital for pneumonia on Feb 2.
Doctors desperately tried to treat an infection for the 39-year-old that affected both lungs. Her fever just kept coming back, and she grew increasingly breathless.
“It was like she was running a marathon on the bed,” said her sister.
Her health deteriorated over the next four days to the point that she became critically ill. “She was on the maximum limit of oxygen support in the general ward setting, and the doctor thought that she would be better taken care of in the ICU,” said her sister.
Explore our interactive: All the COVID-19 cases in Singapore and the clusters and links between them
A WEEK IN THE ICU
The 39-year-old was wheeled into the ICU on Feb 6.
“My last memory was (feeling) a little panicked because I didn’t know what to expect … But I just had to trust that the medical team knows what they are doing,” she said. The last thing she remembered was a mask being put over her face to sedate her, and she slowly drifted off.
Her sister said doctors faced difficulties getting enough oxygen in her blood. “So they paralysed her with medication to totally knock her out, so (machines) can take over her work of breathing, hoping that they can rest her lungs,” said the sister.
Around the same period, the Government began testing all pneumonia cases for the coronavirus.
On Feb 6, she was confirmed as Singapore's COVID-19 case number 33. The call to family members came the next day morning. “I was very stunned because I thought the likelihood was low, but they were pretty sure,” said her sister.
What ensued was “madness”, said the sibling.
Government officers from the Ministry of Health and Singapore Police Force started calling her to help with contact tracing. “I was receiving calls till my battery went flat,” she said.
Ambulances were also sent to take all the family members – including a one-month old child – to different hospitals for screening. They were eventually cleared, and sent home to serve out quarantine orders.
Meanwhile in the ICU, doctors were considering an advanced life support technique called ECMO if they still could not get enough oxygen into her body. The procedure would mean that the medical team would have to transfer her to Singapore General Hospital.
Eventually, that option was no longer needed as her condition stabilised in the ICU.
Doctors had also given her medication typically used to treat HIV patients. The medical team then attempted to lift her out of the medically-induced paralysis by cutting down her sedation.
But doctors told the family members that once they did that, she “became very agitated and started to wrestle a little unconsciously”, due to the discomfort of having breathing tubes in her.
“We were thinking that if we were her we would also be very agitated, being put through all these uncomfortable things in an unfamiliar place,” said the sister. Because the family couldn’t be by her side to comfort her, they recorded audio messages of encouragement instead.
“We (told her) she would be fine … and all the invasive things on her were transient, and going to help her for a period of time only,” the sister said. That worked, and slowly, doctors were able to reduce the amount of sedation she needed.
Friends from the church also rallied around the family.
“When I started to gain consciousness, I saw nurses and medical staff around me. There were tubes connected to my mouth,” she said.
The woman said she was confused when she was told that she had the COVID-19 infection. Till today, she does not know how she caught the virus.
After being moved out of the ICU on Feb 13, she spent the rest of her days in the hospital in an isolation ward where she slowly regained her strength. She was free to go home on Feb 18.
“If you are sick because of the coronavirus, you are probably (one of) the most important patients in Singapore right now,” said case 33’s sister. “This disease didn't kill her,” she added.
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BREATHING FELT LABORIOUS
Another woman in the same cluster, case 38, said she had a different experience fighting the infection.
“People thought I (would be in) extreme pain, and probably looked absolutely skin and bones … I dispelled that (misconception) through video calls,” said the 52-year-old woman, who was also discharged from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases earlier this week.
While her breathing felt laborious at the worst point of her illness, case 38 said doctors told her it was her own immunity that fought off the virus.
The most challenging thing for her was the 10-day stay in the isolation ward. Doctors spoke to her mostly through the phone. Even her temperature was monitored by an RFID tag, while her food was sent through a secured hatch.
“People joke about being stranded on an island, but it does feel that way,” she said.
“I had everything that I needed, but it was the lack of human contact," she added.
While she saw “love in action” when friends reached out and sent her daily encouragements, there were those who questioned if the church had taken enough precautions against the virus.
Others were fearful and anxious that they had gotten the infection from her.
“Entire families had to be quarantined – which meant that work and schooling, and generally their way of life was affected. There was some fear, which I can understand,” she said, adding that it did not even dawn on her to blame the church or anyone for her COVID-19 infection.
“I used the opportunity to comfort others in fear … and (used) my experience as a form of encouragement and testimony to those who were worried,” she added.
The 52-year-old also saw the sacrifices nurses and medical staff had to make.
“I felt extreme compassion for them,” she said.
“You can sense the tiredness, and also the courage they have in spite of all of these,” she said, urging Singaporeans to share more appreciation for frontline staff.
“This too, will come pass,” added case 38. “We have survived SARS. Today, we are in the midst of surviving COVID-19.”