The journey to recovery

Hakim Hayat

For recovered COVID-19 patient Sudheep Roy, anxiously waiting for the news of his test results more than three months ago was agonising, let alone being confirmed positive for the virus the next day.

A few days before he was confirmed positive for the virus, he complained about fever symptoms that never seemed to subside.

Throughout the world, the coronavirus cases and death toll is rising, but many of those infected have survived and gone on to make a full recovery.

It has been more than three months since Sudheep, a 51-year-old expatriate working in Brunei who contracted COVID-19 in March has been completely cleared of the deadly virus. Borneo Bulletin spoke to him during a Zoom meeting about his experience of when he first noticed symptoms, later hospitalised and then on to make full recovery.

Since earlier this year when coronavirus spread gained traction around the world, Sudheep said he had been following closely with updates through the news. His employer of more than three years also issued precautionary measures while the Brunei government issued travel advisories to severely affected countries.

Sudheep does not travel much and last travelled in December last year. He resides with his wife and daughter in the Belait District and lives a normal and happy life. To keep his fitness levels up, Sudheep also goes on a run two to three times weekly.

It was on March 15 when he was about to go for his run that he felt his body aching. “It was only that and nothing else so I thought ‘let’s not do it this time’.”

He went to work the next day and was still experiencing the symptoms and postponed his run again. He later felt feverish with redness in his eyes but brushed it off as a normal fever that he experienced every now and then.

“I self-medicated as usual and took some paracetamol. I called the company helpline for COVID-19 and mentioned my symptoms. I answered a questionnaire such as whether I travelled recently, if I have been in contact with COVID-19 patients, etc.”

He was advised to see a doctor and had to return a few days later because his fever symptoms didn’t subside and he was only prescribed with paracetamol.

It was then that a few confirmed cases were reported in his office and he called the helpline again. “They called the Ministry of Health (MoH) and they got in touch with me immediately for the test and I was told that I was COVID-19 positive the next day.”

On receiving the news, Sudheep couldn’t believe what he was told. “It’s a shock and I was not expecting it. I have been reading about it since January and I have a lot of notes about the disease’s complications and so when they told me, my brain almost froze,” he said.

“The first thing that came up to my mind was why? I have never been in contact with those who tested positive. I started worrying about my wife and daughter because I was with them. So if I have been infected for the last five-six days and staying at the same house, chances of infection is high.”

Upon receiving the news, health officials instructed him to start packing as an ambulance was going to his house to pick him up. “At that time, I was not even listing my things to bring. I was shocked and even when I was confirmed positive, I asked again to make sure it was correct.”

Health officials soon arrived at his doorstep to transport him to the National Isolation Centre (NIC) in Tutong. “I was confined to a room so I shouted to my wife and daughter and tried to call them. I had not seen my daughter for the last four-five days then because I asked her to be isolated so I called my wife. I walked past the living room on my way out where my daughter was standing 10 feet away crying. I told her not to worry and that I will be back. In my mind I didn’t know what is going to happen,”

Even when he was at the NIC, for the initial two-three days, he was still in a state of shock, “because I’m trying to process the information, especially when I got the infected and the things that could go wrong.”

“I was in shock because for the past few months, I didn’t read anything positive about it in the news. I read about the complications the virus brings and I started to think of worst case scenarios,” he said.

Sharing his experience of being treated for about two-weeks at the NIC, he said he was put in a room with two-three other COVID-19 patients, whom he is in contact with today since they all made full recovery.

The treatment process was simple, he said, as medications were administered based on symptoms. “If I had fever, they gave me paracetamol and when I had a cough, they gave me cough medications. All of them (patients) have different symptoms and the treatment was only for the symptoms and not the virus itself because there is no cure yet.”

He recalled that during the first two-days in treatment, he was given a full health check-up such as ECG and X-rays to check the condition of his lungs.

“The doctors and nursing staff checked on me four-five times a day and made sure all my health vitals including blood pressure, temperature and oxygen levels were stable. They also took blood samples, and only those who had low oxygen levels were moved to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU),” he shared, adding that apart from fever, he had no major symptoms and only had an upset stomach during his time at the NIC which he said was probably due to a change of diet.

In his written account of his experience published on his Linkedin page recently, he wrote that one of the biggest challenges of the confinement was the issue of space.

“You are confined to a room with a few other patients. You will be spending almost all your time on the bed – sitting, reclining, eating, sleeping. Even all the medical tests are carried out on the bed itself. When you want to stretch your legs, you can walk in the room. In my room I could cover the length of the room in 11 steps, a big let-down from my 10k runs two-three times a week,” he said in the account he wrote while in confinement.

“I saw patients on mobile phones, laptops most of the time, playing games or watching movies and catching up with families and friends. There was one TV with local channels and it depends on the four people in the room what they agree to see,” he shared adding that the period allowed him to catch up via video calls with friends whom he had not seen in a while and share his experience.

He shared a room with a 12-year-old student who was busy on his laptop catching up on his online lessons from school.

Sudheep said that he felt lucky with his bed setup for the first 12 days. “I had what I told my friends was ‘a bed with a view’. My bed was next to the window and so I could look at the outside world. I could see the makeshift discharge centre across the road where recovered patients and their belongings were decontaminated before being discharged.”

The sight made him a bit emotional – happy to see another recovered patient leave but sad that he was still stuck there. “The windows were north-westerly faced and that also gave me an amazing view of the sunsets.”

Since his discharge two weeks later, after conducting three consecutive swabbing tests, Sudheep said life has returned to normal but he is being extra careful. He is still anxious about what will come next as there are a lot of uncertainties with the new virus.

“It is a mental thing rather than physical. It is difficult because there is no cure for the virus yet. Reading what’s happening around the world makes you nervous,” he said, adding that although he feels fine and doesn’t have any complications, he doesn’t know what’s happening inside his body.

As a recovered COVID-19 patient, Sudheep is coping with the worries that he might be re-infected again and be a long-term challenge.

“Because this a relatively new disease, no one knows what the long-term effects are and what’s going to happen,” he said, noting the MoH’s commendable and tireless efforts in containing the virus, preventing further spread and treating patients until there are no more cases in Brunei. He would like to see a follow-up on patients’ general well-being to see how they cope post-COVID-19.

These days, even if something abnormal happens such as a pain in his hand, he feels it is related to the virus, “because I don’t know – the first thing that comes to mind is that it is related to (the virus). But then again, it is most probably not the case.”

He said that he is constantly thinking about it, even when everything is fine. “I have a couple of things I want to talk to doctors about but not sure if it is just my imagination or if it’s happening. Initially when I was discharged, I had issues with my sleeping pattern, so I can’t sleep well now. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m overthinking it or some other reason.”

He added that he tried running again since April but he cannot cover the distance and at a pace like he normally do. “I have breathlessness but I’m not sure if it is related to the virus or if it’s just that I have not been active for a month,” although he said physically he generally doesn’t feel any different.

On the issue of the social stigma surrounding recovered COVID-19 patients, Sudheep said that it is understood that an infected person would be reluctant to identify themselves.

He said he heard stories from local Bruneians who were infected or swabbed that some close relatives did not want to meet them for fear of getting infected. “There’s nothing you can do apart from keeping an open mind that recovered patients can carry on with their normal lives.”

These days, he said he is trying to get on with his normal life as much as possible but has to reduce activities and take extra precautions. “I usually go to the shop a few times a week but now I shop a minimum once a week and I use a mask, wash/disinfect my hands regularly, disinfect my things before I go home and take a shower after going out.”

He said he now behaves as if he can get infected again. “Even when I’m cleaning something, I ask myself, am I missing any parts? And start cleaning again although it’s almost impossible to clean 100 per cent.”

He commended the MoH saying they have done an excellent job controlling the COVID-19 in Brunei. “It’s not only them but the public following instructions, rules and guidelines. It worked even though we had to endure hardships and make sacrifices.”

“Every country has a different way of managing the crisis. Only history will tell which country did things right,” he said.

“Wherever you are, please abide by the requirements mandated by the authorities even if you don’t agree with them. In general, maintain social distancing, maintain your hygiene, wash your hands for the mandated 20 seconds (as often as required), monitor and report symptoms (if you develop any). This is going to be the new normal for now.”