By Cosmas Omegoh, Agatha Emeadi (Lagos) and Gyan Bere (Jos)
This is a story told straight from the heart. It is a story of war – war to stay alive, war to tame that monster called COVID-19, war to save humanity under severe threat of a virus that has wreaked havoc across the globe.
But it is also a story of victory, of survival – everything bursting at the seams with determination, tenacity and unwavering faith and hope in God.
Here is a tale told by the victors themselves – people who have been on the frontline trying to save Nigerians from the sustained onslaught of COVID-19. It is a story of the survivors of COVID-19 – people who have been through the ‘valley of the shadow of death,” and emerged, though bruised, but not subdued. And here, they are singing the victors’ song and warning that COVID-19 is real.
It is slightly one year after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. That was on March 11, 2020. Before then, WHO, a bit hesitant, didn’t want to be perceived as spreading fear and terror around the world. So, it tarried for awhile. Yet, the unimaginable continued to unfold in rapid succession.
Then, WHO through its Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, seemingly overwhelmed by the emerging reality, declared amid the rapid spread of the virus that the organisation is “deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” adding that “we should double down. We should be more aggressive.”
According US’ Centre for Disease Control and prevention, “a pandemic is an epidemic that spreads over several countries or continents and affects a large percent of the population.” That is the humongous challenge humanity has had to deal with since a little over one year ago.
But even when there appears to be hope with the roll out of various vaccines, there are still controversies wound around COVID-19.
Nigeria has had her own share in the virus which China officially admitted on December 8. It started in Wuhan, one of its provinces. The virus was initially named 2019-nCoV, sharing similarities with single-strand RNA virus and the MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS-CoV (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). It was later christened COVID-19.
Then on February 27, 2020, the Federal Ministry of Health confirmed the country’s index case in Lagos State, through an Italian immigrant working in Nigeria, who returned to Lagos, on February 25, 2020.
So far, the COVID-19 narratives across the states of the federation appear the same as were told by the survivors and health workers in this encounter. The latter, even faced with lean resources, have thrown everything into the fight. Yet the disease has been unyielding, though victory is near.
Now, it is one clear year down the road. Both the survivors and healthcare givers – those experiencing COVID-19 first hand, those taking the heat, trying to save other Nigerians from calamity and death, have been recalling their experiences.
Their narratives have been gripping as they are accounts of their trails and travails in the fight against COVID-19 as the nation waits with batted breath for the vaccines to go round.
Our battle with COVID-19
Till this very hour, many still believe that COVID-19 is a fluke. They dismiss it with the wave of the hand as “government magic,” or as a tale for the marines. Some insist that it is a gambit spurned by the government to funnel off resources.
Perhaps some of those folks will change their minds after an encounter with COVID-19 survivors and their handlers. Call them heroes and heroines of the pandemic.
Dr. Nsikan Nyoyoko tells his story
“On Tuesday, June 16, 2020, I felt ill, and commenced anti-malaria immediately.
“The high fever and severe body pains became compounded by chills and rigours and nasal congestion even after completing the full course of the anti-malaria.
“Four days into these symptoms, precisely on Saturday, June 20, 2020, I developed some difficulty in breathing and had to be rushed to the isolation centre at Ibom Specialist Hospital, Uyo, by my wife.
“I was admitted immediately that evening with a temperature of 38.3°c.
“Two days later, I was confirmed COVID-19 positive, but was too sick to cry. I kept hope alive with prayers and family support. My phone became my closest companion. Following my positive result, I was transferred from my single room to a large room designed to accommodate three patients. The three of us (all males) struck a partnership immediately and the loneliness and depression I had earlier experienced, disappeared. One of my roommates was my senior colleague. Both of them were asymptomatic. They literally catered for me. After the first 14 days, I tested positive again. Instead of discharging me, I returned back to my room to meet new tenants, but spent a total of 23 days in the isolation centre before I tested negative and was finally discharged,” Dr Nsikan Nyoyoko, a consultant Gynecologist /Obstetrician who is also the immediate past chairman, Nigeria Medical Association, (NMA) Akwa Ibom State, recalled.
How I contracted COVID-19 –Dr Iloanusi (survivor)
“I am a consultant Radiologist with the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Enugu (UNTH). I experienced COVID-19 and survived.
“On June 29, 2020, I was not feeling strong even though I’m busy as doctor who works a lot. I just felt I was under stress; then on June 30, I started feeling like I had a flu; on July 1, it came with running nose, headache; everything came in quick succession and I was passing watering stool 15 times a day. I was anxious about contracting COVID-19 because I know I have had a very fickle immunity right from my infancy compared to my siblings. I was the one that took my parents to the hospital always. When I was in Primary 2, I got moms; in Primary 5, I suffered measles; in my secondary school, I also suffered conjunctivitis twice and chicken pox. I remember when yellow fever broke out in the 90s, I was a medical student. I became worried and went to get the vaccine. I knew that once a flu breaks out, I would get it. When COVID-19 came on board, I became really scared because I have low immunity. Even as I tried to put all the protection, I still came down with it.
“My post-COVID-19 experience is that I have lower energies compared to before. I get very tired easily,” Dr Nneka Iloanusi narrated.
I tested positive twice for COVID-19 –Dr. Ekrikpo
“Twice did I test positive for COVID-19 as a frontline health worker. I doubled as the second-in-command at a centre where COVID-19 patients are treated in my state.
“The first time I got to know I was positive was when I went for the routine test because I saw a lot of COVID-19 patients at that time; I came out positive. I just got isolated with my family and returned to work after two week of testing negative.
‘We went back to using nose mask, hand wash and sanitiser etc. Two months later, I was called to see an extremely bad case of a COVID-19 patient with kidney failure; we had to do a SLED for the patient to be on dialysis for a long time instead of the normal four hours. The same patient was on a ventilator, and was moved to an isolation machine outside our isolation centre. In that process, we were exposed to COVID-19 with other patients who needed to do a CT scan outside our operational jurisdiction.
“After that exposure to high-profile COVID-19 patients, I just went in for a test and came out positive for the second time. A day after the test, I had very high fever; my body pain was like that of an accident victim. My kidney appeared to be shutting down, but I did not get to the point of needing oxygen, though with infiltration in my lungs. It was terrible; I got better after seven days on admission; yet I kept testing positive in the next 23 days. I stayed off work for one month. I am completely healed, but decided to stay away from COVID-19 patients.
“I consult and advise the younger doctors on what to do with COVID-19 patients in the hospital now through telephone,” Udeme Ekrikpo, a Consultant Nephrologist with Ibom Specialist Hospital, Uyo, in Akwa Ibom State, disclosed.
On how he recovered, he said: “During my recovery process, I did steam inhalation two to three times daily. I also took a lot of medication. I attribute my condition to ‘accumulated stress.’ In the last six years, I have not gone on leave. I completed an extremely difficult Ph.D in one of my areas and took over a dying hospital and resuscitated it.
“The effect is that I get tired so easily; what I do now is to drive to the hospital, consult and work for 2-3 hours and go home. I didn’t have time for myself and didn’t rest; I didn’t get myself to eat well in the last six years.”
I had burning sensation in my throat –Johnson Ayantunji
Here is what Johnson Ayantunji, News Editor, Telegraph newspaper experienced with COVID-19.
Hear him: “I woke up in the morning of Thursday January 7, 2021 with a slight irritation in my upper respiratory part of the body and had a steam inhaling therapy and got some relief. By midday, the irritation had become something else. Within the week, I felt a burning sensation in my throat and decided to go for a COVID-19 test at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR),Yaba, which was positive.
“The moment I tested positive, my family and I restricted ourselves and faced our medications. A lot of calls too many to mention came to us for prayers; we were advised not to panic. While in that isolation, various things went through my mind – my relationship with God, wife and children.
“With throbbing headache, running nose, side effect of medications, high fever and high blood pressure, all these were my condition for three weeks before I went into a second round of test which proved negative. God be glorified; COVID-19 is real.”
It’s been horrible, terrifying –Dr. Gomerep Sunni
The case Management Lead of COVID-19 in Plateau State and Consultant Physician, Jos University Teaching Hospital (JUTH), Dr Gomerep Sunni, has described working at the isolation centre of Jos University Teaching Hospital as horrible and terrifying.
Dr Sunni said that health workers in the state have put in their best to reduce the mortality rate in the state, pointing out that more than 60 of them were infected and two were lost.
“We have been responding within the limited resources, I don’t think we have the best of everything. We have being doing our best despite the shortage of manpower, inadequate motivation of healthcare workers, but we have done our best,” he said.
Dr Sunni expressed gratitude to God for the falling COVID-19 infection figures in Nigeria compared to other countries of the world, pointing out that the mortality rate in Plateau has remained very low which showed that health workers in the state are always at their best.
“Many people have been affected with the virus. Out of the health workers that we are working together over here, some have been infected, while two mortalities have been recorded.
“Absolutely, the vaccine has been what people have being praying for and now that it has come, people are making statements as if they have never taken drugs or vaccine of any nature before.
“There is nobody in Nigeria that has never taken drugs or vaccine, it is not possible. Every vaccine has its own effect, and if the benefit outweighs the risk, you go for it.
“As a medical personnel, there is no drug that does not have side effects and adverse reactions. The only way you can develop the health immunity is to get vaccinated.
“It’s either you get the vaccine or you will be infected with COVID-19 and you don’t know where you will end up, either in the ICU with ventilator which is a horrible experience; the best way out of it all is for us is to be vaccinated. Everybody should get themselves vaccinated despite the falsehood that has been spread out,” he said.
It’s been painful experience –Dabit, Plateaunurses’ boss
The chairperson of National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives (NANIM), Plateau State branch, Briskila Dabit, described her experience as painful and tough.
She said that responding to COVID-19 requires more precaution on the part of the health workers and that was why every patient was seen was COVID-19 patient during the outbreak.
“As a health worker, my experience during the period was very tough; it has never been easy. As you work in the hospital, you will not know who is who; therefore, everybody is considered as a COVID-19 patient.
“If you are managing somebody and you don’t take it that way, the whole society would be infected; so we decided to treat everybody as COVID-19 patients,” she said.
We sustain system with our sweat, blood –Dr Akase, LUTH
Dr Irohen Akase is the COVID-19 team leader, Lagos University Teaching Hospital, (LUTH).
His experiences are revealing. Hear him: “From the clinical point of view, I can say that we have had diverse experience in many ways in terms of what the virus is, how it has evolved, what is peculiar with us; what works and what doesn’t work.
“We feel more comfortable now. The way we approach the infection now is different from the way we approached it in the past. We have got a lot of understanding about it. And to that extent, we have been able to develop capacity.
“We must admit that this is something new; everybody is learning on the job. But we have got a lot of valuable experiences right now. This has been quite good for our local researchers and clinicians.
“Then as a country, we have been building vital capacity in terms of response to a pandemic – building logistics, structures, human capacities and resources. More people have been trained now than ever before to treat and handle infections of epidemic potential. Even corporations have also developed capacities.
“But there are also issues with what we have been through. Unlike what we had when our experiences were limited, we have had challenges dealing with patients that were affected by COVID-19, both those who were affected and those who lost their loved ones and those who knew those who were affected.
“And we have healthcare practitioners who were involved in things that were tasking. So, psychologically, we are dealing with staff and patients who have had issues with COVID-19. We are having people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after going through COVID-19.
“Then again, in terms of what our experience has been working in a dysfunctional healthcare system, it has been quite tasking. Some of us have had to sacrifice so much time, and family. We have had to leave our homes to live in isolation centres, rented apartments, especially during the first wave. We couldn’t go home for safety reasons – more because of the work load.
“When patients come in sick at midnight or 1:00a.m, they don’t want to know that you are tired and going home. They just want to be attended to. So, we just have to make a lot of sacrifices and to stay on.
“What this has translated to is emotional and physical burn out. I personally have been operating on a form of default mode. It is now that the numbers are beginning to go down that people have been processing what they have been through in the past one year. Projects have been neglected.
“I’m a clinician researcher. Most of my projects have been neglected or relegated to junior workers to handle. My research activities have been suspended so that I respond to the pandemic. And we have had to work very hard to cover up for systemic lapses. Sometimes, there are stuffs you have to do, but you don’t have this or that. And you have to go out of your way to get them. There were instances patients were gasping for breath and I had to carry a gas cylinder just to save a life. I have carried patients with my hands up two flights when there were issues.
“Generally the experiences have been varied. Over and above everything, healthcare workers in isolation centres have kept this COVID-19 fight going practically with their sweat and blood. There were times when if you needed to wait for this and that to arrive, your patient would die. You just step out to do certain things, sometimes at the risk of your own life.
“It has been actually tasking for the past one year. Now, front line are going through stress and unable to concentrate. Many people actually need two to three months to go somewhere and unwind. Therefore, for most people on the front line, this is probably time they need their own lockdown – to just go somewhere and recover.”