MPHO LAKAJE: My near-death experience with COVID-19

MPHO LAKAJE: My near-death experience with COVID-19


COVID-19 in Gauteng remains relentless. Driven by the delta variant first found in India, cases in the province continue to go up exponentially. As a result, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Sunday, South Africa would remain on alert level four lockdown. Unlike the first two waves, the current one appears to be a lot more ruthless as the number of deaths continues to skyrocket. Eyewitness News contributor Mpho Lakaje is among those who was infected recently, and found himself fighting for his life. Here’s his story.

Around the second week of June, I was having a great time, working on stories relating to the commemoration of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. On 16 June, I watched my work on TV with great pride. But two days later, something strange happened. I was having a telephone conversation with a close friend when I suddenly became unusually exhausted. During the phone call, I became so tired, I desperately wanted to sleep. At the time I thought, perhaps my body was begging me to take it easy as I had been working hard.

The following day, I woke up with excruciating body aches and chills, accompanied by the mother of all headaches. My sense of smell and taste disappeared, along with my appetite. I knew this wasn’t a simple flu, cold or allergies. I was dealing with something a lot more serious. The following day, the symptoms intensified. I was coughing intensely. In the days that followed, breathing became a serious mission. It felt like my lungs were filled with water. I was dealing with COVID-19. Fortunately, I have an oximeter at home so it became easier to monitor my oxygen levels. Under normal circumstances, my levels would reach up to 98 out of 100. But this time, it was a different story. I could only do a maximum of 88 out of 100 and the levels continued plummeting. My lungs were really battling.

By that time, I was in quarantine, bedridden and terrified. As I battled to breathe, my mind started turning on itself. Am I going to be here in another day or two? Will I still be with my wife and three small children? Am I reaching the end of the road? What’s going to happen to my family, should I succumb to the virus?

My wife called our family doctor and explained my situation. He prescribed cortisone, ivermectin and antibiotics. We added a few other things like multivitamins and zinc supplements. At the same time, she started frantically searching for an oxygen concentrator. Her idea was to either purchase one or get it on rental basis. She was hell-bent on ensuring I didn’t go to the hospital. Besides, medical centers across Johannesburg were overwhelmed. But finding an oxygen machine became an impossible mission. And then, out of the blue, a miracle happened. It was on a Friday afternoon when my wife called me with great excitement: she had found an oxygen pump for me. How? She accidentally came across a humanitarian organisation called Ghouse Azam Welfare Foundation. They were happy to help her with an oxygen pump, at no cost. That’s their mission: volunteering to help people who are COVID-19 positive.

The state-of-the-art oxygen pump arrived. Although it initially made me cough uncontrollably, particularly in the early hours of the morning, it became a game changer. In about a day or two, it was pumping healthy amounts of oxygen into my body. Finally, I had a sense of hope. But my body was still extremely weak. I would spend about 45 minutes in the sun on a daily basis, yet the walk from my bedroom to the garden was totally exhausting. At the same time, my wife was forcing me to eat. She would literally grab the spoon and put it in my mouth, while she did everything possible to protect herself.

Word of my ill-health reached my family members, friends and colleagues here in South Africa and abroad. They began calling and sending messages of support. Their words became important. While COVID-19 is a physical sickness, the battle tends to play itself out on a psychological level.

Here’s what I couldn’t wrap my head around. I am 41-years-old. I don’t smoke. I drink alcohol moderately. In fact, I hate the idea of getting drunk. I work-out at least four times a week. I drink plenty of water throughout the week. As a rule, I don’t consume sugar midweek. My diet comprises plenty of veggies. My wife jokingly calls me “The Vegetable Police”. But when COVID-19 entered my body, it wreaked havoc. It felt like all my efforts to lead a heathy lifestyle counted for nothing.

Hours turned to days, and I remained bedridden with a tube to my nose. But there was progress. My oxygen levels were picking up nicely and I was eating. But I was still experiencing piercing chest pains. Nearly weeks later, the same humanitarian organisation that helped me with an oxygen pump, sent a volunteer and a nurse to my house. Firstly, they wanted to check how I was doing. Secondly, they needed to do a COVID-19 test. The results arrived the following day. Negative! The virus was no longer in my system. This test was important because I couldn’t visit a GP while still COVID-19 positive. It was important for me to see my doctor because, even though many of the symptoms were gradually disappearing, the stubborn chest pains wouldn’t go away.

It was on a Tuesday morning when I visited my GP. He did a thorough ECG test because “COVID-19 can cause cardiovascular damage”, he said. He was happy with the results. Great. I was equally relieved. It was time for a chest X-ray. Remember, the aim was to get to the bottom of the chest pains. When the X-ray results came back, the doctor said, “The virus really affected your lungs. I can even see where it was seated. But no worries. We’ll fix this.” He explained to me that the chest pains were part of what’s known as “post-COVID symptoms”. He gave me a seven-day course of antibiotics and a few other things to get rid of the persistent pneumonia. About two or three days later, the chest pains began to disappear. Food started tasting delicious and I was finally regaining my strength.

So, what would I like you to take out of my experience? First and foremost, we absolutely need to continue looking after ourselves. The coronavirus is relentless. Should you test positive, please speak to your doctor and get the right medication. Try to get an oximeter to monitor your oxygen levels. If you battle to breathe, please seek help urgently. Getting fresh air is crucial.

I cannot begin to emphasise the significance of family support. Isolate, but stay in touch with your loved ones. No matter how difficult it may be, force yourself to eat. Day six to 10 appear to be the hardest. Keep going. Don’t lose hope. You need to win the psychological battle to defeat the invisible enemy.

My battle with COVID-19 also taught me the importance of social solidarity. It was a group of strangers, the Ghouse Azam Welfare Foundation, who came through for me when I desperately needed an oxygen concentrator. These guys did not know me. They had nothing to gain by helping me, yet they showed incredible commitment to help save my life. Perhaps this is a lesson for us all. To defeat the virus, we need to unite as South Africans.

It’s time for selflessness. We need to pull together. The mere fact that I can breathe with ease today, the fact that I have a second chance to chase my dreams, makes me grateful. I am not taking anything for granted. It’s an attitude I am applying to different aspects of my life.

Mpho Lakaje is an Eyewitness News contributor based in Johannesburg.