A Nigerian nurse in the United Kingdom who recently survived COVID-19, Mrs Kemi Samuel, 52, shares her painful experience with GBENRO ADEOYE
You are a COVID-19 survivor, how does that feel?
I am relieved that I came out of the tunnel because there were a lot of worries and despair. The disease was just killing people, especially blacks. I feel thankful to God.
How did you contract it?
I don’t know. In the build-up to the lockdown, we had to do a lot of shopping. I have two children and I wanted to make sure there was food at home to last us for the period. Sometimes, we had to queue at the supermarket. Also, I was working; I work as a nurse and midwife although I was observing all protocols but we were not well protected at work. The British government didn’t provide adequate personal protective equipment as recommended for health workers. It could have been through anything, including letters from the post. It is difficult to say exactly how.
What symptoms did you have?
It started with a headache and I don’t usually have that. It was a frontal headache that affected my eyes. It went on for about three or four days, then I started coughing. I could hardly say a sentence without coughing 10 or 15 times. I coughed for about two days before my temperature started going up. I had a fever, body aches, body tenderness, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, vomiting, hallucinations, and heaviness in the chest. I had these for over a week. Oftentimes, I was tempted to call for an ambulance to pick me up but I resisted it because I felt I could use a lot of remedies at home.
Were you not initially sure it was COVID-19?
Yes. I was doing quite a lot at home. I made sure I isolated myself in my room. I didn’t allow my children to come near me. It was difficult to do that. Luckily, they both could cope. I couldn’t eat what they prepared for me as I didn’t have an appetite. I didn’t experience any loss of smell. I just didn’t have an appetite.
I made sure I was moving about and not just lying down because that is very important to keep the fluids out of the chest. Then my doctor called on April 2, 2020. I was supposed to have an appointment with him on that day anyway. He had sent me a text saying I shouldn’t come to the surgery and that he would call. He called and heard me coughing. So he said my cough was terrible. He asked if I wanted to go to hospital and I said I was okay. He said, ‘You don’t sound okay, you sound very chesty.’
Then I heard him coughing too and I said, ‘You are coughing too.’ He said yes and that he was calling from home because he had been confirmed to have COVID-19. I said, ‘Oh, so we are in the same boat.’ But my symptoms were much more terrible than his because it affects people slightly differently.
He prescribed some antibiotics for me because I requested. I knew what had worked for my cough in the past.
How was it confirmed to be COVID-19?
I wasn’t tested but the GP (general practitioner) asked me some questions about my symptoms, the pattern and all that and he said I had it. He said I should isolate myself from the rest of my family, try not to have contact with them or go out. He said if I needed to go to the hospital, I should call for an ambulance. And there is a dedicated phone line that we use here – 111. I called and they also confirmed it.
But they would tell you if your symptoms get worse, just call for an ambulance to pick you up. But I didn’t want to go to hospital. It got to a stage that I felt I needed it but I thought I could look after myself better at home than going to the hospital to add to the workload of health workers there. I felt if I could not cope at home, then I would call for an ambulance to pick me up but I managed to cope.
What kind of drugs did you take at home?
I took quite a lot of medications; I took paracetamol. You must not take ibruprofen, it makes it worse. I had read about that so I didn’t use it. I took different multivitamins; high concentrated Vitamin B Complex, Vitamin C, and others. I was drinking lots of fluid like lemon, ginger, or lime with honey. I boiled some onions and garlic. I always have that in the fridge anyway because it is good for warding off symptoms of cold.
I made sure everything I drank was hot. I was doing inhalation –my children would boil lemon or lime peels and put in a bucket so I could inhale the steam. I was doing that up to three or four times a day.
Normally I don’t drink alcohol but a friend’s husband who is from Jamaica had told me to have Jamaican rum at home, just before the lockdown. He said whenever I felt tingly at the back of my throat, I should take a shot and that I could also rub it on my body. After doing inhalation and my body dried up, I would rub the rum on my body and drink a little. I would wait for an hour or two and go and have a shower. And I would rub menthol cream on my chest and my children would wear gloves and rub it on my back.
I had some eucalyptus oil that I put on tissues to ease my breathing a bit. I had to maintain an upright position all the time; I couldn’t lie down, especially at night. At night, I always felt unsafe and scared. I felt if I closed my eyes, I was going to die so I couldn’t sleep much during the period. And I was using the toilet a lot. I was coughing quite a lot too, and trying to get mucus out but it would lead to vomiting.
How long did that go on before you started feeling better?
It went on for over two weeks and I couldn’t put anything on my skin. I was naked. I couldn’t allow anything to touch me because my body was very tender and sensitive. Even though I was feeling cold, I could not have anything touching my skin. I was very sweaty as well because my temperature was very high. It lasted for two weeks and a few days, then it gradually started easing off. Now it is just the cough I have.
Often times, I would want to pass out. There was a time I went to the toilet and passed out. My son had to ignore all the protocols. He carried me and took me to my room. I insisted he had to have a shower. He bathed himself thoroughly and took some of the things I was taking.
With the contact your son had with you, did he get himself tested?
He has had no symptoms. I made sure my daughter didn’t come home because she is diabetic. My son isolated himself from his sister as well. Luckily, we live in a building with three floors; my daughter lives on the second while my son lives on the first floor with me. They were drinking everything I was drinking but when my son touched me, I had to force him to double the doses.
How scared were you when you had all the symptoms?
I was very scared because I am a single mum. I was scared for my children’s lives. I thought if anything happened and I didn’t make it, what would happen to my children? I wasn’t scared to die but I was scared for them. I thought, ‘Who is going to nurture them like I have been doing?’ I am not God but there is no one that can be like your mum. My daughter is 24 and my son is 22, so they are adults but they will always be my children. I thought, ‘Have I put enough in their lives to be able to stand on their own?’
I thought I had been through a lot and had not even had time to look after myself because I had sacrificed everything I had to nurture my children. I overworked myself so that I could give them my time. I used to do only part-time work so that I could be at home when they returned from school when they were younger.
I was thinking about all this one day when my son came to my door and started talking to me. He said, ‘Mummy, you have been through a lot, this is not going to kill you. I don’t want you to start worrying, just keep praying. You will survive it; God will not allow you to die now.’ It was like God sent him to me to reassure me. It came at the right time because I was getting deflated. He said, ‘Just keep moving around, don’t stop.’ He kept on talking and talking and that really helped me.
Also, I send gospel stuff to people in the morning; this is my own way of evangelising. My married friends would tell me they know I would wake them up between 6am and 7am. I send prayer points and things like that unfailingly. But when I was ill, people started noticing I wasn’t sending them on time and it was not in my character. Those who noticed they were coming late got in touch with me and I told them my experience. God just put it in their hearts to bless me.
Some would send me WhatsApp messages; some would ask me for what I needed. They would buy lemon, ginger and so on and bring to my door. I felt so loved. Some of them are not even Nigerians. I was touched by the care.
Did you experience any stigma during the period?
No, I didn’t experience that. Even one of the people that we studied nursing together contacted me out of the blue. She wanted to ask about something and when she asked what was going on and I told her, she said she was just coming out of it.
Hers was confirmed by the hospital. We started comparing notes. I would say, ‘Yes, I experienced that too.’ But she had survived it while I was still going through it. It gave me some encouragement.
Does the experience make you appreciate life more?
Yes, it makes me appreciate life more and realise that I should just live for the moment. However, I have been doing that since 1991 when my brother died. I am not saying people shouldn’t be ambitious; you can be ambitious but also live in the moment. While you are still alive, take time to savour the blessings of God and appreciate Him. It made me put a lot of things into perspective. I have always been simple anyway, so I am not into designer things or specific types of cars.
But it made me appreciate that life has no duplicate and you just grab whatever you can and savour it. Be more appreciative of the people around you. God can use anybody to bless you. Don’t dismiss any human being; embrace everyone wholeheartedly. No one is a forest and when you are in need, you will always find someone to help you when you fall. Don’t allow pettiness and ethnicity to cloud your judgment; we are all one. Our journeys may be different, but we are all aspiring to attain something. We should embrace our individuality and connectivity, which shows that we are humans. So it has made me to appreciate humanity more.
When you realised that you had survived it, what was the first thing you did?
My action was very premature. I played Tope Alabi and Baba Ara’s songs and started dancing. I danced for almost two hours nonstop. I just couldn’t stop praising God and appreciating Him. I woke my son up and said I was hungry. He brought food and I took a little but couldn’t eat much as I started coughing. That was very premature.
Do you eat better now?
I am overeating now, which is bad. Anyway, I am doing exercises now. After dancing, I couldn’t breathe well, I started feeling like I wanted to faint. Then my son said, ‘Just listen to the gospel music, don’t dance, okay.’ I had just come out of something very serious and my body needed time to recover. He said give yourself another week before you start doing this marathon dancing, okay.
I accepted and did that. And I love cooking. Recently, I woke up early and started cooking. My son, who is the COVID-19 police in the house, started asking, ‘Have you touched this? Have you touched the tap? Have you touched the light?’ And he would start cleaning them. He didn’t want me inside the kitchen but I didn’t give a damn, I wanted to cook badly. And while I was cooking, I was dancing because I was playing gospel music.
I was rocking and cooking; I cooked about four different meals. By the time they woke up, there was a lot of food and they said, ‘What is wrong with you? Have you touched the tap? Have you touched that?’ My son decided to clean everywhere.
Have you gone out since you felt better?
Yes, recently I went out for the first time. I said I wanted some sweets and other stuff. I got up around 7am. They gave people working in the front line time to buy food – between 7am and 8am, before the supermarkets would officially open to the public. That is a way of saying thank you for your services.
My house to the supermarket is less than 10 minutes’ walk on a normal day but it took me almost 20 minutes to walk there. I felt very tired. I was feeling dizzy so I had to do everything very slowly. Almost every two minutes, I would sit on the ground, then I realised I had not fully recovered.
Usually when I walk slowly, it takes me 10 minutes to get to the supermarket. If I walk fast, seven minutes. But on that day, it took me over 20 minutes to walk there and even much longer to walk back home.
When do you hope to return to work?
My general practitioner gave me till May 13, 2020 so I will be going back on May 14.
How old are you?
I am 52. I will be 53 in December. I think my immunity wasn’t at 100 per cent due to the menopausal symptoms that I had been experiencing before I had it.
You said you were not well protected at work; do you have fear that you could get infected again when you return to work?
My colleagues tell me that all they are giving now are just surgical masks, which they use in the theatre and aprons. And they do consultation with the patients. I work in the clinic. One of those working in the wards sent me the photograph of the PPE she was wearing and her neck and forehead were still very exposed so she could contract it through that because fluids could splatter on you when people are coughing.
I have read about front-line nurses leaving work and dying within four hours of returning home without showing any symptoms of COVID-19. They get home and die. That is happening a lot.
What do you consider as the adequate PPE needed for your job?
The WHO standard is that it should cover the whole of your body, not leaving any part exposed. But the ones we got don’t cover the whole of our face. Despite the noises about it from January, the government was inadequately prepared for it.
Does that make you afraid to return to work?
I am really scared because having survived it doesn’t mean that you have developed immunity to it, according to scientists. Now I hear that it’s mutated into different strains. So I am scared. So yes, I am petrified. I have thought about resigning but if I do that, how am I going to keep on surviving, paying my mortgage, bills and feeding my children because I made my son to resign from work? The type of part-time job he was doing involved having contact with a lot of people.