Covid-19 survivor Lorentia Bester, 57, of Kuils River, who spent 67 days in hospital, says her experience still haunts her today.
She continues to struggle with anxiety and sleepless nights after contracting the virus in June last year. She was at her mother’s memorial service in Velddrif when she started feeling nauseous and sweating excessively.
Her husband, Jan Bester, took her to a doctor. She had a test for Covid-19, and two days later it came back positive.
A week later, Ms Bester’s symptoms worsened. While struggling to breathe, she was rushed to a hospital in Vredenburg and placed on a ventilator in the hospital’s Covid-19 ICU.
She slipped into a coma for 32 days. Doctors told the family to prepare for the worst.
“The doctors said there is nothing they can do anymore but make her comfortable until her last breath,” Mr Bester says.
Doctors would video call him as his wife lay attached to pipes keeping her alive. “This was a trying time for my family and me, but we are happy she overcame it.”
Ms Bester recalls little of the time she was ill, although she has some foggy memories towards the end of her hospital stay when doctors allowed her to see her family.
She was taken off the ventilator but underwent a tracheotomy – a hole made in her throat to provide oxygen to her lungs – because she initially found it hard to breathe without assistance. She was then transferred to a rehabilitation centre in Tygervalley where she learned again how to walk, eat by herself and write.
“The proudest moment for me was being able to take ten steps a day at that time. I had to push myself because I wanted to be home with my family.”
After recovering she was reunited with her family but used a wheelchair and a walking stick to get around.
Ms Bester has regained her physical mobility and energy but says she is suffering psychologically, and hallucinations she had under sedation in hospital replay in her head. She recalls seeing a gravy bowl with a black eye in it that would hiss at her if she didn’t give it attention.
“On Christmas day, when preparing a meal, I took out a gravy bowl and it nearly fell to the floor as I remembered that the eye might be in there.”
At night she wakes up wondering if she is still breathing.
The videos and pictures she recently saw of herself hooked up to pipes during her hospital stay haven’t helped with the anxiety attacks.
However, despite the horrors she has faced, she says her experience has given her a new appreciation of life.
“I am closer with my family, closer to God, and my husband and I are in love all over again,” she says. “It is a privilege to be here.”
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) says their call centre has been flooded with people who suffer with anxiety and depression caused by the Covid-19 pandemic – either they have survived the virus and are suffering psychologically or they have lost loved ones to the virus.
Sadag spokesperson Kayla Phillips says they get more than 1400 calls a day and most are related to Covid-19. Before the pandemic Sadag had, at most, 600 calls a day.
“The pandemic has affected all aspects of people’s lives,” she says. “We have had more calls from people who feel suicidal.”
The pandemic could have also aggravated the symptoms of people already living with mental health issues, she says.
Sadag counsellors, she says, are under pressure as many people have lost their jobs and they’re worried about debt and an uncertain future.
“The biggest impact has been on citizens’ stress levels with worry heightened due to a variety of reasons such as: safety and health, financial security, working or schooling remotely, inability to see and connect with loved ones or attend funerals as well as changes in freedom of movement. All these experiences can result in people feeling more sad, irritable, angry or hopeless.”
Anyone struggling to cope with depression, anxiety, panic, grief or thoughts of suicide can call Sadag’s Suicide Crisis Helpline at 0800 567 567 or 0800 456 789, or visit www.sadag.org. You can also SMS 31393 and a counsellor will call you back.