The Malta Independent 27 November 2021, Saturday

Covid-19: My two-week battle on what could have been my deathbed

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 28 March 2021, 09:00 Last update: about 9 months ago

The Malta Independent senior editor Stephen Calleja opens up about his fight to overcome Covid-19 and how the near-death experience has changed him

Yes, I had Covid. But so have more than 28,000 people in Malta, and 125 million around the world, I hear you say.

Yes, it bit me hard. But it hit others harder and killed nearly 400 in Malta and 2.7 million globally. So stop whining; you're still here.

This article is not for the many who fear the disease. They can go on reading it to prove the points they make when they argue that it needs to be contained, controlled and possibly eliminated.


It is mostly intended for people who continue to take risks, believing that they are healthy enough to withstand the onslaught, while putting the lives of many others, who are more fragile, in the balance. This article is an attempt to instil in them a sense of respect towards what has become the most well-known killer of the 20s. Hopefully, my account will persuade them not to take anything for granted.

In the mid-50s, my health was generally speaking good. When the pandemic started, I used to think that if I got the virus, I would have been fairly protected against it, and I would have passed the test with few complications. The idea that many of those who were positive to Covid had no symptoms gave me the false hope that it would be over quickly, if I ever got it. I never thought that Covid would throw me in intensive care and take me so close to dying.

It all changed in the first week of March.

I tested positive, and I immediately realised that it was not going to be an easy one. There was no asymptomatic situation for me. I had many of the indications health authorities speak of when they describe the effects of the virus, including loss of smell and taste which, although many would think to be trivial matters, do have a strange impact on a person's lifestyle.


Hospital treatment

Soon enough, my breathing became too laboured. I ended up panting if I walked a few paces from the bedroom to the bathroom. The high fever I had did not want to subside. It was evident that the hospital treatment I had adamantly refused could no longer be delayed.

I remember thinking, on the way to hospital, why ambulance drivers prefer the longer routes and opted to avoid the bypasses. This particular one seemed to want to take the vehicle into every pothole. But perhaps it was because I was too ill to think clearly, and I was feeling every jolt which, in other circumstances, I would not have taken any notice of.

From there onwards it was one long experience of therapy and treatment. One whole blur of events that, if you had to ask me, I could not place in order. Others were simply unknown to me until I was told about them when the ordeal was over, more than two weeks later. It makes me think that my wife and children, and others close enough to know what was taking place, went through a more difficult time as they knew what was happening, while I was sedated and oblivious.

Time lost its meaning and I have no recollection of what happened in some of those long days in which I was between life and death. There were moments when, unknown to me at the time, my life was very much on the brink.

I do not even remember when I needed to be rushed from the Infectious Diseases Unit at Mater Dei Hospital, where I was first placed when I was admitted, to the ITU. But the breathing problems had deteriorated. My oxygen levels had dropped dramatically, and I just could not breathe without assistance. I needed intensive care.


A whisker away

Later, I was to know that, indeed, I had been a whisker away from losing my life, prematurely, I would add. When a doctor tells your wife that the next 48 hours are critical, “and it can go either way”,  it says it all.

The bad thing about Covid 19 is that it is a very lonely disease, simply because it is so contagious. In the moments when I was alert, probably after the worst was over but was still in ITU, I thought about the people who had died on their own, with no-one around them, except for the nurses and other paramedics who were too busy trying to save the life of other patients.

They all looked like agender robots, changing gloves every few minutes as they dealt with the different patients. Sometimes I could not even distinguish whether I was talking to a man or a woman; and the wearing of masks distorted voices too, not helping in the process.

In one particular curious moment I remember saying "good morning" to the nurses and they replied with "good evening". "We have just started the night shift," they added. Somehow, I had missed a 12-hour cycle, probably 36, maybe even more. I argued with them but they were the ones who were right.

Being on your own in such circumstances is the worst feeling I ever had.

No words of comfort from a partner, no hug or a simple squeeze of the hand from a loved one, no encouragement from someone looking at you in the eye. You're all alone, fighting a battle which could be your last and, if lost, would mean that you leave this world on your own, and become just another statistic.

It is also hard on the family and friends, who would do anything to give you courage but are unable to do so. Desperate times lead to desperate attempts and, in an effort to feel close to me in her own way, my daughter Sarah even ended up trying to get my favourite singer Claudio Baglioni to send me a video message to give me courage. He did not reply, of course, but the gesture shows how much Sarah was eager to try everything possible to be close to me in those days.

For his part, my son Luke, more reserved, immersed himself more deeply than he had ever been in AC Milan and Ferrari, a passion we both share. Again, it was his own way of feeling near me. He even placed a Milan shirt on the sofa where I usually stay when Milan were playing, in my representation.

I got to know this after I was out of the woods and the relief in the voices when I could finally speak to them and my wife Rosanne was something I will always treasure.


Lonely disease

What I remember clearly, in times when I was alert or semi-conscious, is contemplating about what was happening. Why me? But then, at other times, why not me? I'm not special. Was I to become another of the younger Covid victims, lowering the average age of the people who died? In Malta, the number of victims below 60 years of age is, generally speaking, low. Was I to become just another footnote at the bottom of an information table published every day by the health authorities; a footnote that leads followers on social media to say that "even the young are dying"?

During those days in ITU, I had no means of communication with the outside world. My mobile phone was taken away for safe keeping. It is a policy so as to avoid adding distress and anxiety to the patient. Later I was to know that in the same days I was battling the disease four people younger than me had lost the battle with Covid. In hindsight, it is better that I did not know this while fighting against the disease. I would have possibly lost much of the courage I had in my combat.

But, having said this, being so cut off from my wife and children, and my mum and brother, was cruel. Had I seen the last of them? Would I get the chance to hear their chatter and see their smiles again? The general course of things is that parents die before their children - was I to be one of the few exceptions and die before my mum? Was I going to be the first of the web of cousins to kick the bucket, even though I am more than halfway down in the list according to age?

I kept trying to be positive - how ironic that a word that should mean good is now associated with such bad tidings - and try to fight my way back. There were various times when I felt too weak and the feeling of surrendering dominated my thoughts. For me, there is no middle ground in Covid - you either feel hopeful or else hugely depressed. And, believe me, in those turbulent times, the bad moments greatly supersede the good ones.

It's a lonely disease, indeed.


Appreciating life

And it was also a wake-up call. Now that the worst is over - smell and taste are still to return and the general feeling of fatigue is still to go away, and it's nearly a month since I was told I was "positive" - I look at life in a different way. This terrible experience has opened up new avenues. I have been given a second chance. I will not postpone that coffee I promised to an old friend any longer.

I know it is a cliché, but every single day should be appreciated. And now I also know that I have inner strength that I did not know I had. The vision I have in my mind of myself lying in a hospital bed, drifting in and out of consciousness while being on the brink of death - one of my doctors, at the end of the ordeal, described what I went through as "like being hit by a truck and surviving the impact" - will give me the push to try to enjoy every minute of what's left of it.

Such moments - 19 days in hospital, 14 of which in ITU - also tell you who your true friends are. Many got in to touch to express their concern and support; old acquaintances also checked on me. Most of all, the management of Standard Publications Limited and work colleagues were close to me and my family in this life-changing experience. I missed some important events, but today it is easier to catch up on what takes place. And I'm sure there will be some more exciting days like yesterday week on which to work together.

The staff working at the hospital - overworked, overloaded and overburdened - deserves all the support they can get. They are working with infectious people around the clock, putting their own lives at risk, and the battle against Covid is nowhere near the end.

To those who continue to ignore the signs and who take risks, believing that Covid can hit only the vulnerable, my message is clear: you cannot be more wrong. I thought I was immune or, at worst, would win easily, certainly not among the vulnerable. I never imagined I would need all my forces to beat Covid, and manage to do so after a great comeback.

Covid-19 - think about it, we're in 2021 when the disease started in late 2019 - will not go away unless everyone puts in an effort.


One day less

I would like to add an idea to the country's fight against Covid.

Stay at home an extra day.

If you normally go out seven times a week, try to fit your schedule in six days. If you are out of the house six days a week, try to do everything in five days. And so on, and so forth. Today, technology makes it much easier to still be "in the community" while being on your own. It will also be an opportunity to spend more quality time with your loved ones, or take up a new hobby.

It is a simple gesture that could go a long way to reduce the number of cases. The less you are out, the less are the chances that you encounter someone who is carrying the disease, maybe unknowingly.

Politicians should be the first to set an example. Forget about house visits for a day and stay in touch via the social media. It should not be that hard.

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