Can I begin by stating how much in awe I am of medical science; the advancements in research and, the novel treatments. Yet for someone who has been in and out of hospitals, for most of my life, I know that each time I’ve been discharged, I hope to myself that I will stay healthy longer and steer clear of hospitals. While for the most part I consider myself strong, and having a ‘tough-cookie’ veneer, people looking at me assume I’m fragile, weak and more vulnerable to infections than ‘normal healthy’ people.
Lesson One: When there’s a global pandemic, and you’re ‘immunocompromised‘, you don’t want to be in that space when the bogey man aka Corona is stalking the corridors.
You are aware that while hospitals are treatment facilities, there is also a possibility of picking up a secondary infection or virus whilst there.
Yet, on the morning of 4th March, I found myself at the doorstep of St Pierre Academic hospital in Brussels. What begun as a sore throat the previous Saturday, progressed into a flu by Wednesday.
I face viruses like influenza in the simplest and safest of ways. I simply hydrate. Swallow as many cupfuls of hot water I can, throughout the day. It helps. The bad stuff gets flushed away, and the feeling of general malaise vanishes into thin air.
I couldn’t hack it this time. I had an awful sour taste in my mouth and could no longer eat or drink, had heart palpitations, felt lethargic, and had a cough that made my throat feel like it was coated with sand paper each time I swallowed.
It kicked off a crisis, and I knew I had to get to hospital..fast. A crisis is what happens when the red blood cells break down because of low oxygen levels, and cause blockages in the blood vessels and joints, resulting in extreme pain. Sharp pain that feels like needles going through my joints. Sometimes a combo of paracetamol and brufen can give some relief. Ocassionally, only morphine can do the trick.
Lesson Two: A crash course on being a ‘patient’ patient while at emergency. Obviously, the first thing I did at emergency was to request for a face mask to cover my mouth and throat. An emergency room waiting if you’re not ‘an emergency- aka in labour, having a stroke, in cardiac arrest, hemorrhaging, having broken bones or head trauma’ can take the whole day.
It was 10 am when I arrived and was placed on the narrow stretcher. I stared at the ceiling, answered questions as they came, felt hot and cold intermittently, stared out the open door as people walked up and down the corridors, thought about my crush, thought about those crushing on me, felt very hungry but had no appetite, changed into a hospital gown, wondered why the hospital gowns were always bare-backed with strings at the back, didn’t feel embarrassed if I turned and medics saw my bare bottoms, was wheeled to the radiation department, had a chest X-ray done, was wheeled back, tried to sleep, yada yada. It would be a long day of tests, and being examined that would culminate in an admission at 7pm. My room was self-contained and I was solo. Yay!
Lesson Three: I can never get used to bloodwork. I loathe bloodwork. I loathe it because when the nurse comes in with tiny test tubes and a branula, there will be an amount of pain involved. And pain is pain. No two ways about it. They want to check haemoglobin levels, electrolytes, liver and kidney function, bilirubin levels and other things that only the blood can show. I always seize the nurse up, and try to guess if she/he is using my body as dart board practise, or said nurse sat through studies diligently and can get the correct pokes the first time. This time there were three different nurses; three arterial pokes and four venous pokes. All except two were a miss.
I’ve been poked aplenty during my numerous hospital stays, and the same way I have never gotten used to living through the cold of winter, I’ve never gotten used to the pain of a syringe piercing through my skin. The nurses kept on saying “Desolee, we try again, don’t move,” seemingly oblivious to my moans, and each time, I just shut my eyes tight, shouted and kicked the air. I rested easy when an IV line was in place, and fluids begun to flow into my body.
Lesson Four: The word sexy found a new meaning in my vocabulary. A lovely looking young doctor strolled in sometime in the morning. He announced that they would do a test by a swab in my nose to take a mucous sample.
Because he is a French speaker, it is hilarious how he describes the process to me.
“Is it painful?” I ask.
“Mmmh…how can I describe zis? Let’s just say, it iz not sexy,” he concludes with a wave of a gloved hand, and a toss of his black wavy hair.
I held my breath as the cotton stick entered my nostril, deeper and deeper. Aargh..my reflexes kicked in, and I swatted his hand away as I snorted like a horse. He had gotten his sample, thankfully.
I agree that it was so not sexy. On a level of one to ten of ‘unsexy’ things, it was a twenty over ten. Sexy has nothing on clothing, or the lack thereof; it can also denote a feeling of comfort or otherwise profound discomfort.
Lesson Five: When you encounter challenges, you get to learn that some friends you thought were ride or die, are actually just ride. Wheat and chaff things.
Because the medical team helping me hadn’t figured out whether I had basic flu or the bogeyman had me in it’s cold Corona clasp; everyone was in a mask, including myself. One of my friends came through the sea of masks, with three little bottles of red wine (the one liquid I could swallow), fruits, cookies, and stories to tickle my funny bone. I’m grateful to have such friends, because after my discharge, people I considered close buddies in our circle of friends, froze when they saw me. They glanced at me with dread, like I should have a hazmat suit on before I could approach them.
Lesson Six: I became a specimen. A lab rat, a guinea pig. Or all of the above when I got admitted to this academic hospital. Though no one visited except my teen, Miss Ashley; and my friend who brought me three bottles of wine in hospital, I didn’t feel lonely.
Reason being, for every single day I was in hospital, one after another of medics came by to ask me the same questions in different ways. The nurses also kept coming in to take my vitals; temperature, blood pressure, oxygen levels.
“What brought you here?” medical doctor asked.
“Can you explain to me what happened that made you be admitted here?” Resident-in-waiting asked.
“You’re really ill,” the nurse exclaimed after seeing me throw up every single morsel I’d eaten.
I really wish they’d all surround my bed at a specified time, ask away and leave me to get some shut-eye.
Seeing that medical science has helped me live longer than expected, I like helping medics with their research and studies, and I was totally okay lifting my hospital gown at intervals for them to tap my abdomen, feel my organs and listen to my heart. Whenever they wanted to.
Lesson Seven: Being quarantined is my Achiles heel. Being in isolation makes me feel like a prisoner, and I felt like hatching an escape plan. I watched ‘Shawshank Redemption’ for the umpteenth time, trying to apply the ‘escape’ to my situation. Especially when the hospital went on a full lockdown, banned visitors from coming in, and banned me from walking out, by saying that only doctors, nurses and hospital workers with badges can walk around. That was the wake up call I needed. I was now fully aware that Corona virus was not just a virus over yonder, it was right here, floating about in the air, wafting on surfaces and roving in the lungs of some patients in this very hospital. I have watched animals behind bars or in National parks, but in one stroke the world was topsy-turvy, and we were suddenly caged by a virus we couldn’t even see with our naked eyes. Suddenly I was not so brave.
Lesson Eight: The alien cravings made their windfall. I have no idea where they’ll lead me, there was that time in Kenya I was so ill that all I wanted was watermelon, then after gorging on them, I hated them and wanted fruity icecream, so my brother brought me a ton of red-devil icecream and Orange maid. I digress.
After three days in hospital, I’m responding to treatment. The sign I’m getting better is usually cravings. I’m talking crazy cravings like a preggie woman has. At crazy times. When I woke up at 3:00am, I suddenly wanted to crunch ice cubes. I pressed the red button to summon the nurse.
“Where on earth do you think I’d get ice cubes at this hour, its 3am?” a Congolese nurse who looks and sounds like Djimon Hansou calmly asks.
I’d like to reply, “In the kitchen?” but I keep mum, I don’t know the dynamics at play. Maybe the day nurses locked up the fridge, or the kitchen closes at 6pm. Later on in the morning, I get icecubes when the morning nurses come in for their shift. I plopped the cubes into the cup of orange juice, and crunched them. And got satisfied. The sandwiches, tea and fruit was ignored.
Lesson Nine: The new normal is not normal. I felt like superwoman the day of discharge. If there was no pandemic, the doctors would probably have released me after three days, but they really had to make sure I was in the clear as my building has so many children and babies, and flu being flu is contagious whichever kind of flu it is. I reveled in my new found freedom, I took lungfuls of air outside, I went shopping, I went out. The Brussellouix were either not panicky, or not serious. Life as I observed that day, was going on. People still crammed the subway, and out and about in the streets. In the next two days, all that changed. The country was placed on lockdown as the rate of new infections soared. Schools were closed for five weeks. The only places open are supermarkets and eateries. While we’ve previously washed our hands with a water rinse; now everyone is being urged to use soap, lather up a foam and scrub in between fingers and palms for twenty seconds. We are urged to keep social distance and sneeze/cough in the crook of our elbows.
People begun to act batty. There are long lines in supermarkets, frayed nerves, overflowing trolleys, scant shelves. Eateries are open but empty, you can’t sit and eat in them, it’s all take out. Public libraries, and every shop not selling food is shutdown. You go out to the streets and it feels you’re in a ghost town. This is serious, but it is now your new normal.
* Corona virus which has now mutated to Covid-19 is real.
*Most people feel that it originated in an animal market in Wuhan, China. Others believe it is as a result of a laboratory research gone awry.
*It spreads through the face, through touch, through droplets as one sneezes.
* Containment efforts at the moment involve lockdowns and curfews in many countries, here in Belgium many shops and offices are closed, eateries and supermarkets remain open because food is an essential.
(This post is dedicated to all workers in the frontlines providing essential services like healthcare, emergency care, the policemen and lastly, teachers who we appreciate greatly during this time we have to stay home with our kids.)