“If the story of my ordeal with COVID-19 can convince at least one person to get vaccinated, it might just save a life,” says Johannesburg’s Mbusi Ndlovu, who has been locked in a life-or-death battle with the coronavirus for more than a year.
“The severity with which I had been affected by COVID-19 makes no sense at all,” says Mbusi. He was only 29 years old, went to gym, had no pre-existing conditions and had no lung problems – he didn’t even smoke. Yet this time last year he landed in hospital and now, a year later, he is still battling the virus.
He cannot understand how people can refuse to get vaccinated after spending months in a hospital bed and having to learn to walk again. “Vaccination should be our priority. It gives us the opportunity to fight this virus. COVID-19 is real – I know exactly how bad it is. I am proof that it can also kill young people,” he says.
Dr Paul Williams, the Netcare Milpark Hospital-based critical care specialist and pulmonologist, whose team was responsible for Mbusi’s care, says the young accountant was extremely ill. “He had COVID-19 as bad as we’ve seen in anyone who survived. We thought he may have to be considered for a lung transplant. He still had to be on a ventilator for about three weeks after having three months of Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) treatment.”
But according to him, Mbusi has made a remarkable recovery. He credits Mbusi’s positive outlook on life in general, “which made it much easier to look after him.” Dr Williams says they suspect that Mbusi had the Delta variant of the virus, which can explain the severity of his illness.
According to Mbusi, his ordeal with COVID-19 has become the worst experience of his life. “On 11 December 2020, I went to a GP with flu-like symptoms, and she diagnosed me immediately: ‘you have COVID-19!’. She referred me to the Netcare Waterfall Hospital for a COVID-19 test, which confirmed her diagnosis.
“A couple of days later, it became difficult to breathe, and we had to call an ambulance to come pick me up. At the Netcare Sunninghill hospital, they told me I have mild symptoms.
“I went home to self-isolate, but a couple of days later, things got much worse. I was sweating and struggling to breathe. My body was giving up. On 18 December I was rushed to Netcare Milpark Hospital, where fortunately a bed happened to be available.
“I remember when I got there, I was immediately taken to ICU. Within a couple of days of being in hospital, the medical team decided to put me on ECMO. Luckily, the team at Netcare Milpark Hospital had this technology available and as the largest ECMO unit in the country they also have the expertise to assist patients who need this kind of specialised treatment. Large tubes attached to the machine were inserted through the large vessels in my neck.”
ECMO is a state-of-the-art process where a machine artificially performs the functions of the lungs, 24 hours a day. It pumps and oxygenates a patient's blood outside the body, allowing the heart and lungs to rest.
“The biggest issue was that this virus had started to damage my lungs to the extent where they were not functioning and responding.
“This entire time the medical team was buying some time for my lungs to recover so that they could function again. This piece of technology played a key role in giving me a chance to survive. Initially things were not looking good, but the team soldiered on and kept monitoring my progress but for some reason, I was not getting any better.
“While ECMO was buying my lungs some recovery time, my liver started to become a problem. They now had to bring on board a liver specialist. With multiple key organs failing at the same time, you can just imagine how slim the chances of survival were. I was in ICU, heavily sedated from December 2020 until I regained consciousness in March just after the ECMO was removed in February.
“Yes, I was on ECMO for that long. At some point, the medical team had started having conversations about having a lung transplant performed because I had been on ECMO for so long. The team decided to take a chance and remove the ECMO. Luckily, my lungs responded and could function,” says Mbusi.
Obviously, his lungs were significantly damaged and had to be monitored carefully. Mbusi then went on a ventilator in the beginning of March this year, which is when he woke up, intubated in an ICU isolation ward.
“I remember one of the physiotherapists came to see me. She told me I was going to recover. I couldn’t answer her because I had a tube in my throat and couldn’t speak at all.
Mbusi says he became incredibly frustrated because he thought he wouldn’t be able to ever walk again. “How could I possibly walk when I couldn’t even move a leg?” he asks.
The physiotherapist explained that the human body loses muscles by just being in bed for a couple of weeks if not days. Mbusi had been in a hospital bed for three months, not moving at all, being fed through a tube running through his nose.
He says his biggest victory was when he could lift his right arm. “In my mind, I kept wanting to move my legs. I tried and tried until they started moving. I was slowly gaining the muscles back.”
He remembers how emotional he felt when a physio told him that as part of his exercise for the day they were going to try and make him stand. “I wanted to walk, but I couldn’t stand for even 10 seconds.”
Eventually he managed to stand, and later started walking again. His rehabilitation was a slow process with occupational therapy, speech therapy and physiotherapy.
He remembers getting daily injections to prevent blood clots. One day, the physiotherapist put him in a wheelchair and took him outside so that he could see the sun after not being outside for months.
He says he will forever be grateful to the team at Netcare Milpark Hospital. He believes they saved his life. “I wish I had more time to talk about each of the different specialists, the speech therapist, the dietitian, the nurses, doctors, the psychologists, even the cleaning ladies… But it is such a long story.”
According to Mbusi, his severe illness was particularly traumatic for his family. His brother passed away early in 2020, and they also lost his grandmother that year which was the year he was hospitalised. His family flew from KwaZulu-Natal a few times to see him but was confronted by the frustration of having to return not knowing if he would survive. All of this resulted in many sleepless nights and a great deal of stress for his father, who as a parent, had to deal with having a child in hospital in a different province, without daily access. His father was also the first point of contact throughout Mbusi’s hospitalisation.
After being discharged in April, he still had to go to rehabilitation to work on his severely diminished lung capacity. “It’s been quite a journey. I’m much better now. I have made significant progress and things look good. I still have to see an occupational therapist every two weeks, but the greatest blessing is that I’m alive. I’ve lost so much weight and muscle. It was unbelievable to find myself in that state.”
He has made a graded return to work in June and is almost working at full capacity again.
And he loves to tell people the story of his year of severe COVID-19. “The point of sharing this story is to try and convince people to get vaccinated and protect themselves against this deadly virus. Some did not buy it, but I managed to convince quite a few people to take the vaccine.”
When he became ill, the vaccines were not available yet, but as soon as his age group qualified, he got vaccinated.
He wrote his story on social media a couple of weeks ago, which quickly created a Twitter frenzy. Several of his followers suggested that he consider a career in writing. “This is a great story to tell,” he says. “But there are other great stories too, I’ll definitely try my hand at it. Who knows what the future holds?”
“I would like to thank everyone who was part of this journey with me. From the entire Netcare team to my whole family, friends, colleagues, church members – everyone who was there to support me throughout this difficult journey. Thank you very much for allowing me to share my story – I hope it saves someone’s life,” concludes Mbusi.
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For more information on this media release, contact MNA at the contact details listed below.
Issued by: MNA on behalf of Netcare Milpark Hospital
Contact: Martina Nicholson, Meggan Saville, Estene Lotriet-Vorster or Clementine Forsthofer
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