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- Beating the virus. If there was one thing that wasn’t on Dr Phionah L. Atuhebwe’s mind at the beginning of March, it must have been her birthday celebrations later in May. She had never anticipated she would spend the day in a small plastic hospital in Berlin, celebrating a rare milestone, surviving coronavirus, writes Andrew Kaggwa.
Phionah Lynn Atuhebwe, for those that have interacted with her say, her straightfoward and life of a party nature give an impression that she is always on the highway of happiness. The New Vaccines Introduction Medical Officer at the World Health Organisation (WHO) regional office for Africa in Congo-Brazzaville is known for sharing nuggets from her work which seems to keep her on the move, and general life experiences- that range from her childhood to school days and everything travel.
However, her personal confrontation with coronavirus disease(Covid-19) was a life-changing experience.
On April 12, Easter Sunday, Atuhebwe received an email that she, alongside 43 colleagues had to turn up for a coronavirus test. Days later, she received a call from the doctor, they wanted to give her an update on the tests and find out if she was doing well. He informed her that among the 44 tests done, four had returned positive. “And my response was, oh, sorry.”
Just like any one would sympathise with the affected. When she wasn’t expecting it, the doctor dropped the bombshell; “...unfortunately, you are one of them.”
Atuhebwe had been in Congo-Brazzaville for more than a month, alongside other doctors that were working tirelessly to ensure the continent has everything that can enable her fight the virus.
Exposed at work
The mother of two says many theories exist of how she may have been exposed to the virus, for instance, Congo-Brazzaville had not effected a lockdown by the time she got there. They only effected one at the end of March.
But then there are even her colleagues at WHO.
“A colleague in the office that I was working with on Covid-19 turned positive.”
WHO has been at the frontline of the fight against coronavirus, they have set most of the guidelines the world follows and yet, here was one of their own becoming a statistic, one of the numbers that kept piling.
Uganda is yet to register a case of a nurse or even a doctor but what many of them are going through emotionally and psychologically has been documented, for instance, some have decried the fact that they are yet to be paid, while others have not been with their families for nearly two months.
World over, about 100 doctors and nurses have lost their lives while fighting the virus. in Africa, Gita Ramjee, a Ugandan-South African scientist and researcher in HIV prevention, died on March 31.
For an African health system that has been documented to be in burden for years, sick medical personnel due to coronavirus or even their death would put many in danger. It is believed that death of one doctor in Africa would leave about 10,000 lives vulnerable.
Yet, these doctors can be exposed and eventually become sick.
Facing the fight
“I don’t remember how I felt but I was surprised, I said fine, I knew I had the attitude, body, the immunity and all the resources to fight it off,” Atubwe recounts. In fact, her worry was being in a country whose health system she could not trust, for instance, she notes, “I was in a country that has no intensive care unit.”
Life went on, she was coughing, but it was the only symptom she had, and she continued monitoring her temperature daily. She felt generally healthy.
Nevertheless, she told her husband, mother and a group of friends. For others that know her, they claim they were not seeing a lot of online activity as before but they did not give it much thought.
It was only days later that she felt weak, dizzy and had difficulty in breathing. That is when she was prompted to call the clinic and ask for a pulse oximeter, a small device used to monitor the amount of oxygen carried in the body. It was delivered, but with an oxygen cylinder.
Atuhebwe thought she did not need any of that at the time but she was told she needed some kind of intensive care.
“I received care, in a room, with a bed and oxygen, I spent hours alone and it was scary,” she says.
However, presented with two choices after, she had to be evacuated; repatriating her to Uganda or to a hospital in Berlin. For her, Uganda was not an option for many reasons such as family and returning home was not safe, she opted for Berlin. Either way, an effort had been made to repatriate her to Uganda but communication got a glitch.
“The receiving hospitals did not respond to their emails and calls from the air ambulance organisers in France at the time,” she says.
Even now, she may have felt sick but had not let this get to her head.
Then the nurses that showed up to get her ready for the flight arrived, in full protective gear.
Dressed from head to toe, she remained strong, praying she doesn’t die on her flight to Berlin.
“I had no idea of how it felt inside that gear, it is very hot and uncomfortable.”
But that wasn’t all, the plane had been wiped and everything cordoned off, she felt like a nuclear weapon that would go off any time, a moment she says would stay with her for the rest of her life.
Many people have heard different experiences of coronavirus for instance in an interview, Laura Nagasha, one of the Ugandan survivors says on her first day she knew nothing about the disease besides what she had watched on TV.
She was one of the many that tested because she had just returned to Uganda via Dubai, she did not have symptoms but had her fears.
“I did not know whether I was going to become more sick and later die,” she said.
She notices that her first night at a health centre in Mulago, both the patients, many of whom that did not have symptoms had no idea of what was going on and at the look of things, even some of the nurses with them were learning about the situation at hand.
Henry Kalibala, a Ugandan in Boston had it worse. He tested positive but even in a developed country, he could not easily access medical attention besides being asked to self-quarantine.
Atuhebwe on the other hand was more informed, being a doctor, she could see the effort the team was putting in, but like any human, the events will stay with her.
“There was a very narrow path that I had to walk through, and there was something like a transparent tent, it had a stretcher, that is where I was going to be for a 10-hour flight.”
Atuhebwe talks about praying during the flight while reflecting on how she was lucky for the care she was receiving and the effort both her employers, family and the government back in Uganda that had at one point worked to have her returned home.
Currently in Berlin, Atuhebwe has since recovered from the virus, in high spirits like she has always been on social media. She warns people that coronavirus is real and knows no race or even class.
In her hospital room, she made a video where she narrated her ordeal to the world. The video was posted online on May 7, her birthday.
On May 13, she posted on her Facbook timeline, “How do I spend my days? Breathing fresh air and training my lungs to breathe.”
Worried for others
Yet for many coronavirus survivors world over, recovery is at times the beginning of even a longer journey, uncertainty, fear, exhaustion and in some cases, stigma. In Uganda for example, the way social media treated the first confirmed case said it all, some thought he had to be tried for it and some suggested he should be prosecuted.
Nagasha notes that this was partly one of the reason she came out as a survivor, to show the world that coronavirus was real and curable. Most of the recovered have given testimonies to sensitise others in a bid to fight stigma.
So is Atuhebwe afraid this may happen to her? No.
“I’m not scared about stigma at all for myself because I’m equipped with the information to handle it and to inform the public.”
Atuhebwe is worried for survivors that are not as equipped with what she knows for instance or can’t be able to teach people like she does.
“It can be psychologically and emotionally daunting,” she says.
While addressing media after Uganda announced the first group of recoveries, Emmanuel Ainebyoona, senior public relations officer Ministry of Health, noted that there is a lot of stigma associated with coronavirus.
Thus, they had found it better to counsel communities where the cases had been found before they were returned. The psychological effect of coronavirus isn’t even one-sided, some battle being stigmatised since they had the virus while others will be anxious about their health, in fear of contracting it again.
Phionah Lynn Atuhebwe learnt more about the disease symptoms, for example, she says it can be mild, “and it is mild in many but it can cause severe damage if not well monitored and carefully managed.”
She also noticed that attitude matters when dealing with such highly contagious diseases. Empathy on the part of the managing team and society is important. “Life is short and we should make the best of it.”
For Henry Kalibala, “People should know that it catches anyone.”
Nagasha thinks people should be compassionate noting that people said mean things about those who went to Dubai forgetting that no one travelled with a purpose of becoming sick.