MAILBOX: Covid-19’s most powerful antidote – a personal experience

Journalists are ‘supposed’ to be cynical, questioning everything in order to arrive at the truth and sharing it for the common good. Our tears are not usually mixed with ink, yet the flow from my quill today is unavoidably diluted. You see, I have had a similar experience to David Melvill’s ‘long Covid.’ Esophageal cancer at the height of the Covid-19 surge in the Western Cape last year. Waking up from a six-hour, life-saving op in an ICU 20 metres from the ‘red’ Covid-19 equivalent. Before my diagnosis I happened to interview 20 cancer ‘survivors’ (inaccurate description because not all made it). To a person they spoke of gratitude for their challenge, as does David, who brings this pandemic to life here. The other ubiquitous disease-enhanced symptom I encountered was faith, a powerful chosen antidote, one that echoes back to holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Jabbed by choice or not, I urge you to read this. – Chris Bateman


Overcoming the dreaded virus

The ‘cold wind’ blew into our lives

By David Melvill

Surviving serious and long Covid-19 disease does not seem to happen often. I was the only one in my group who survived in the Worcester Hospital. It is therefore with much gratitude and thanksgiving that I look back.

It was time to celebrate a nephew’s wedding in Caledon. Family relationships were strengthened as my wife’s siblings and spouses (8) all spent time together in one house.

Our niece, who is a teacher, shared how the children in her class interpreted the word, Covid-19, and talked about a koue wind 19. We talked and joked about the koue wind never realising how this ‘cold wind’ would affect us in the days and months to follow.

This cold wind blew into our lives with such a force and brought with it a storm. A sibling, who had not been well, advised us after the weekend that she had tested positive for Covid-19.

We knew after hearing the news that we could be at risk, too. In anticipation, we went into isolation. On the way home to the farm in Montagu, we went via Stellenbosch where we met with friends, Marc and Viv Myburgh, where we acquired the necessary medicines (Ivermectin, vitamins, zinc, antibiotics and cortisone). We also acquired a small oxygen-producing machine for our home recovery. 

When Elizma tested positive, we knew we would both have it. Sarah, our eldest daughter, kindly came to the farm to take care of us. She diligently nursed us and monitored our saturated oxygen levels. Elizma made good progress and fully recovered. I did not. Unlike Elizma, I was overweight and nowhere near Elizma’s fitness levels.

Elizma expressed herself, “Covid walked into our lives, unseen, secretively, like a thief in the night. One becomes aware of an enemy which has only one goal: kill, destroy and steal. It affects you physically, mentally and spiritually. It clings like a nit and uses your every cell to force its persona on it, multiplying itself and its evil intent. Covid-19 was always ‘over there’, for ‘them’ or ‘not for us’. One develops a superiority, a pride, a better than thou attitude, because you were exempt. Until it becomes ‘seen’ in your sore body, your sore eyes struck with a bit of blindness, in your sore throat, your sore just about everything, with ants crawling over your lungs.”

Worcester Hospital

When my oxygen levels dropped below 85%, Sarah announced that I needed to head for the hospital. The family hired an ambulance and sent me off to Worcester Hospital. I was not keen to go as I have learnt very few seem to make it back out. 

Our son, Lemuel, kept me company, while Sarah sat upfront. My duration in hospital was from Saturday, 28 August through to 10 October (43 days). 

The question kept arising, why should I survive when others were not making it? The doctors thought I would not make it either. I did not know that. 

David, and Elizma by his side.

Doctors and nurses

The medical staff of Worcester Hospital impressed me greatly. Dr Vercuil would visit me each morning as he did his rounds. He was young yet very dedicated. He worked hard on trying to establish the best way for my recovery in conjunction with Dr Pretorius. He tried numerous antibiotics and cortisone to beat the virus.

There was a time when I would wake up in the middle of the night in a sweat and my sheets were sopping wet. I discovered later the cause of this was the hospital pneumonia I had picked up.

Regular blood tests were drawn for investigation purposes. X-rays and then finally an MRI scan of the lungs were made. This revealed the poor state my lungs were in. A friend, a retired radiologist, said after studying the scan, he had never seen such a bad set of results from a living person. It was a miracle I survived.

The nursing staff were caring and efficient. One in particular was Sister De Boer. She headed up her shift, she had great empathy and was most caring. There was nothing too difficult that she would not do. I realised quickly, there are still many nursing staff who see this as a dedication and not just a job.

Gratitude

My sister, Cathy Scott, kindly created a group on WhatsApp to report on my progress as well as for prayer requests. It was amazing to know how many people were interceding for me. I know the words were to ring true from James 5:16, “… the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective”.

There is no visiting allowed during Covid-19. I was fortunate to have three visits in Worcester, one with Elizma and our youngest daughter, Leesha, who had flown down from Mpumalanga. Two days later, Sarah came to visit. Miraculously, they allowed another visit by Elizma. 

Each time they brought me water from the farm that has its source in a spring in the mountain, as well as many treats of fresh fruit, sweets and chocolate. There were also gifts that arrived by courier twice. All these raised my spirit and strengthened me. There was abundance so it meant I could share with those around me who were less fortunate. This made a big difference to our morale.

Elizma wrote a lovely letter comparing the budding of the apricot trees on the farm, to my recovery. She also wrote a beautiful poem comparing me with the Warrior David of old. These encouraged me to fight for her and the family. How do you fight an inanimate object such as a virus?

Family video conference call.

The family teamed up for a video call of all six of us to chat and this inspired me. I spent a lot of time on YouTube listening to spiritual messages; good Bible teaching by David Pawson and Derek Prince, to build my faith. 

Sunday mornings I tuned into my church service online. Dominees Hannes Ries and Rupert de Koning shared good messages from home, as well as getting the church behind me in prayer. Lastly, at night time, I listened to uplifting praise and worship music.

A good friend, Lanny Culverwell, went through a torrid time with her health, she was confined to a dark room for three months. She shared a wonderful testimony with me. It was full of faith promises that she made her own, while enduring her hardship. I listened to her message four times and tried to emulate what she had done. I clang to my faith proclamation of Psalm 118:17. “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.”

My gratefulness to the Lord was overflowing.

Do something!

Lying almost useless in my bed, merely enjoying the oxygen on ‘fast flow’ (they can offer up to 100 litres per minute) is very satisfying. It does mean you have lots of time at your disposal. I started counting my days. I asked the Lord to remind me of all my unrepented sins. Not just broad forgiveness but for specific sins. 

The first part of James 5:16 says, Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” This verse I took to heart and repented at leisure as I recalled the not-so-good ways I had lived my life. It was hard to do this search and not find it comforting as I owned up to my sinful ways, and my bad relationships that still needed to be sorted out.

Furthermore, I was challenged by James by what he says in 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” What have I ever done for widows and orphans, was my challenge? 

When I could not sleep at night I pondered about what I could do in Montagu. I am aware of the lovely old boarding house,  Blue Mountain Lodge. It is a building in Long Street that is part of a deceased estate. It is lying dormant. Could I put a syndicate together to purchase this building and renovate it so that it could become a safe haven for women and children? 

There was once an orphanage in Montagu, where the present Jordaan flats are located. This was built after the Spanish flu of 1918 and run by the Salvation Army for many years. Eventually the children grew up and the need for the home was no longer there.

How could we raise the investment capital, I wondered? Whom would I approach? How could we make this a faith venture that would bring glory to God, I pondered this long into the night. Is this what you do when your life is approaching its end, you start to wish you had made some lasting contribution to society?

The enemy’s attack

The small voice of the enemy would come to me and whisper, “Why should you recover and live? You do not deserve it, you are such a sinful man. You are just going to fall asleep one night and not wake up one day.” 

Furthermore, the enemy would remind me, “After all you started the early home treatment with antibiotics and cortisone, but you never finished the course, your wife did and she is healed.”

The X-ray revealed that my lungs were shot. In addition to the Covid-19 virus attack, I had acquired hospital pneumonia. A retired radiologist friend, Dr Ivan Kirk, commented on the picture. He said, “I too am totally amazed and of the opinion that your recovery is a miracle. I do not know how you survived. I have not seen an X-ray like this in my career, in a living patient. The God of second chances was at work in your case.”

An MRI scan of David’s lungs. Normal lungs appear black in a scan. A retired radiologist told David he had never seen lungs like this before.

My angel’s visit

Early one morning while it was still dark, I had a visit from an angel, in the form of a nursing sister. At first, I thought I must be hallucinating as I had been given some morphine during the night. This had caused me to have a weird experience in the middle of the night. This was different, as it was a very vivid encounter and she had a clear message. 

The angel said three things: “You need to keep your faith in God, keep trusting him. God will heal you. You need to lie on your chest (proning); it is best for the recovery of your lungs.” I asked her for her name but she refused to tell me. She merely said she was from another section of the hospital.

Up to that stage I had only been lying on my sides and back. I had no strength and I was so weak that I could not get myself onto my chest. I needed to ask the nursing staff to turn me and come back in an hour’s time to turn me back. The family had asked me to fight the virus but how do you do that? This was a way I could. So I committed to spend at least four hours on my chest each day. I would say to myself, “This is for you my Love!”

My recovery

As the lungs started to recover or rejuvenate, one has to try to wean oneself from the oxygen. I had enjoyed the ‘luxury’ of up to 100 litres per minute. Slowly, they lowered the oxygen flow. Each day I would receive a very basic physiotherapy consultation as exercise was required. 

There were days when I was too weak and I refused to spend my limited energy on it. I became despondent. I could not wash myself, I needed the nursing staff to wash me. My recovery was so slow, I became impatient, yet I knew I had the keys to recovery and I needed to try harder, even when I did not feel like it.

After four weeks, we finally got the oxygen dependency down to one litre per minute. In order to qualify to go home, I needed to be without oxygen for 24 hours. This was harder than I thought. 

You can imagine my sadness when I was told there was a terrible road accident at Rawsonville of a head-on collision of two mini taxi buses. Four were killed on impact and many needed to be admitted to the hospital. It was felt that I should make space and be sent to Montagu Hospital. I was upset, I was so close to being released but had not yet qualified.

Montagu Hospital

Montagu’s hospital turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was reminded of Romans 8:28, “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to his purposes.” I received a warm welcome at Montagu Hospital. I was pleasantly surprised. I sensed it was going to be like a step-down facility. 

Wendy Hoffman, a cleaner, came to welcome me too and asked if she could pray for me. Wow! This was so unexpected. Here was someone who had a lowly role to play in the hospital, yet she was fulfilling perhaps one of the most important functions. Each night before going home, she would call at my bedside and pray for me and any others who wanted prayer. She was a big blessing indeed.

Sister Van Zyl, a senior staff member, was amazing. She was gracious, understanding and most helpful. I marvelled at her ability to encourage me and each and every other patient. Her mentoring and motivating role was of immense value; I witnessed this in a big way. Montagu’s success record in dealing with Covid-19 patients is excellent. 

They have the limitation of an oxygen machine that could produce up to 20 litres per minute. When this was not sufficient, they would send the patient to Worcester Hospital. My roommate, Daniel van Rooy, from Ashton, did well in Montagu Hospital. In the end, he needed more oxygen, and had to go to Worcester. I am pleased to report he has fully recovered and is now back at home.

The valuable role of physiotherapy

In Worcester Hospital there were many physiotherapists, most of them were busy with their community service year. They were offering me baby steps to help build the physical body, as I had lost mostly my muscle fat and 15 kg. I felt like a bag of bones. I could see this walking exercise was going to be a long haul. 

When I got to Montagu, there was only one physiotherapist, Rena Kriel. I called her my drill sergeant. She was very experienced and knew just how hard to push me. I had hardly done any walking before this. She showed me what I could do. 

Each day she would march me down the passage, holding tightly onto me at the back of my garment. I would huff and puff, desperately gasping for breath. My heart would race and I could not wait to get back to my bed, where I would want to collapse. 

At times, I began to think, I would never pass this ‘exam’, of walking down the passage with no assistance and no oxygen. This is one of the prerequisites before you can leave the hospital. I regularly had to remind myself that the Lord is my strength.

Eventually, one day, I arrived back at my bed exhausted. Rena announced, “You made that journey with no assistance from any oxygen.” Unbeknown to me, she had turned it off. She believed in me and it was her confidence that gave me the ability to start believing in my own ability to do it. 

Covid-19
Elizma allowed to visit David at the window.

Speeding up the process

How do you speed up the process? I don’t really know. All I know is that the desire to go home as soon as possible was compelling. The sad thing about Covid-19 is that no visitors are allowed. I was pleased when the staff agreed to allow Elizma to come and visit me, even if only through the window. The reason they agreed to this was because she’d had Covid-19 and would not be bringing any germs to the other patients. The motivational role of this was immense. 

Elizma bought me a book that she had finished reading, The Happiest Man on Earth. It is a story about a holocaust survivor in Auschwitz, Eddie Jaku. I was enthralled by it and read it in one day. 

He says, “The human body is the greatest machine ever made, but it cannot run without the human spirit. We can live a few weeks without food, a few days without water, but we cannot live without hope, without faith in other human beings. Through friendship, co-operation, trust and hope, we can do life, even though difficult.”

Being discharged

On Sunday morning, 10t October, a weekend duty doctor arrived at my bedside. He said, “Although we like patients to reach oxygen levels of 92%, before going home, I think your body has established a ‘new normal’ of 85%.” He went on to say, “As you have access to oxygen at your home and a carer, I am happy to release you.” Wow! I jumped for joy! 

Covid-19
David, Betty Nobel and Elizma.

This was the very best news I could get. I knew Elizma was soon due to start teaching, as the third term in Cape Town was commencing shortly, it was therefore imperative to go home before she headed off.

Strengthening at home

Elizma had organised a carer, Betty Nobel, from Robertson for me. She first went to collect her before fetching me from the hospital. Elizma took the Monday off, the first day of the new term off to settle me. 

Betty was a big blessing indeed. She managed my medication, washed and dressed me, cooked my meals and became my companion for the next three weeks.

Louise Brand, a physiotherapist, kindly made a trip to the farm, to show me what exercises needed to be performed in order to strengthen the muscles for walking and restoring my strength.

Throughout the process, Dr Charles Chouler, my GP, in Tokai, kept a keen interest and managed my progress. His support, love and care was invaluable.

I look back with much gratitude and thanks that God chose to spare me. It was a miracle I survived. I am so pleased that I believe in the God of second chances.

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