In the beginning, that was in February 2020, coronavirus was a drizzle, then it became a deluge before it returned at the end of the year, in its second wave, as a devastation. In the beginning, it was the numbers that we heard; the decimal and geometric progression of NCDC numbers across the land looked like Olympic medals awarded to state capitals in Nigeria. In its comeback, coronavirus becomes a steely fang that emerged from a set of blunted nails. The unknown numbers are now becoming known names: entertainers, businessmen, rich and poor men and women, professors and other professionals. I was a close witness to its second coming. I was a lucky survivor.
These were the last things that I remembered I worked through before the bubble of the coronavirus enveloped me: a birthday party, a literary symposium out of town, a VIP visit, and a book launch.
In previous days, I had no exact recollection of how and where I got infected, but my journey in the bush of coronavirus started on December 10, 2020 with a mild fever. My body wasn’t used to mild fever; it had to be acute, but this was different. It started gradually as mild, some anatomical disturbance that paracetamol could banish easily overnight. I called at the University Health Services for a test and medication. The recommended drugs indicated that I had malaria. I followed the regimen of prescription duly. But I was worried slightly that the mild fever was developing even more recalcitrant as I took the tablets. By the third day after medication, I was convinced that the tablets were fake and I told my wife so. I knew something was wrong but never did I imagine it had to do with the dreaded virus. I had ghost-like dialogues with disembodied, unseen figures. I was actually talking to myself, though sensibly. It was past nine at night when I decided that it would be dangerous to sleep in the house overnight. I believed that I was not alone again. There were presences around me, I insisted I would not sleep in the house.
My wife called UHS and covered the distance between our residence and the hospital in record minutes. The doctor was on hand before we reached UHS. I was lucky. There was a test due for the following morning but which the medical staff were able to conduct that night. The malarial parasites had cleared from my system, I could hear the doctors and the nurse from a distance. In three days, I had lost appetite. It was unbelievable unto me that I would push away Sola’s special delicacy of fish. Even my nose had become a mere facial ornament. I could not smell it if you brought the strongest perfume to my face or if I was marooned in an island of pigs.
Time was slow, time was fast. I experienced a levitation, my body out of my body, while waiting for the dextrose infusion of glucose and other solutions into my veins. The ghost-like figures accompanied me to the space. Among them, I could recognize the light complexion of my late mother in the liminal disc. Her countenance was comely but I couldn’t pick her words in that brief nightmare. Then I remembered begging the doctor to convert all my injections into water or tablets so that I could take them orally. I remembered that I reminded the doctor about my genotype, my blood group, the last time I had such acute fever, and what she should do to reduce my pains. I wanted to know about the lymphocyte count of my blood. The doctor answered me calmly even as I continued to pelt the space with questions. I was speaking with myself. My temperature was running crazy. The doctor returned again with intravenous shots. I thought I wanted to vomit. There was nothing to vomit but bile. It took a long time for me to slip into sleep. Sola sat there, praying. I tried to smile at the prayer warrior but all I felt was pain in almost every joint of my body. I could count each wincing pain by the solid tangibility of the skeletal discomfort.
I woke up to another morning of intravenous injection and tests. Breakfast was Sola and persuasive force-feeding.
Then in the afternoon or just about then, when my body temperature was still playing lotto, the doctor recommended that I be moved to UCH to test for coronavirus infection. On and off, the Jaja team that mended me from first day through that fearful night of December 13 included Dr Oluranti, Dr Bello, Dr Adeniran-Shittu and the Director Dr Ajav. It was Providence that caused Dr Gani Adeniran to put a call through to Professor Olaleye of the Department of Virology at the College of Medicine. Inside the raging ambulance, I commenced a rapid conversation with a man who was silent throughout the journey from UI to UCH. I did not know that my daughter was right inside the bus with me. A solitary oxygen cylinder stood at attention inside the ambulance. It was the cylinder I was talking to. The ambulance arrived and Mr Aluko was waiting, with prompt support by Professor Mrs. Georgina Odaibo. I recognized her. The test was carried out right inside the ambulance. I thought I was cooperative with the laboratory officer but I would later be told that I struggled with him as he tried to pick both mucus and saliva from my nostrils and mouth. I was terribly irritable.
Somehow I didn’t know how we got to a place called MOP with an intention to inquire about admission into UCH COVID-19 centre. The walk up and the waiting must have compounded my irritation. But I observed that the bureaucracy of the protocol, or the protocol of the bureaucracy, was so damning and discouraging that I chose to return home for self-isolation, pending the result from Virology. It was like a market-place, noisy, with squalid seats and corners, and apparently prone to other kinds of infection.
With more medications from Jaja, I settled into a separate corner of the house. My body temperature was still playing golf and rugby all at once without a referee. With mild throat irritation and heavy breathing, I waited for the predictable result from Virology. It came late into the night through a call. I tested positive for coronavirus. Home remedy was no longer enough. More medication without any eagerness for food was suicidal. I braced up to enduring another night of discomfort, pain, nightmare and soliloquy. I didn’t know how blessed I was. Sola was bent over me in prayers, with little care for own safety. With the realization of my coronavirus status, I prepared for isolation. Professor Olaleye called and advised. Dr Ajav followed up. Apparently, the necessary arrangements had been made for my evacuation. A medical officer from Oyo State Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) called to confirm my location. The ambulance arrived with two health workers in full gear. On the ides of December, I was going on a journey of no assurance. The medical officer took a look at me on the bed and told me it was an emergency. He had seen my test report and confirmed that I needed evacuation immediately. He described my status as “super spreader”! It was necessary for me to get full treatment, beyond self-isolation. I could talk barely, and I could hear my own breathing without a stethoscope. I trudged like an ancient elephant and collapsed onto the long orange bed of the ambulance. I was relieved that help had come to meet my reality. Yet I had great trepidation about the other members of my family. To great relief, I would later be informed that each of their coronavirus tests returned negative.
Alone in the EOC ambulance and on the rough road, I lost sense of my location. I would later be told that the ambulance was very familiar to the people in town. Once it whined its way to destination, they concluded that it was fetching another captive to COVID-19, another number in the viral war.
We arrived at the Infectious Disease Centre. Check-in. Disinfection. I met other patients in session with some of the medical staff. I waited while the brief meeting lasted, but it seemed like an hour. Pep-talk by Dr Fasasi, the Medical Director who spoke with Professor Olaleye on phone and informed me that the Centre was under the watch of my colleague, Professor Tope Alonge, chairman of the Oyo State COVID-19 Technical Task Force, assuring me I was in safe hands. There began my 14-day experience as a patient in the Intensive Care Unit of the well-manicured facility called IDC, Olodo. I would hear later that the incident was formally reported in the University Bulletin with an order for the UHS to be closed down. It was the right and appropriate procedure of decontamination but I shuddered at the condition under which the medical officers operated. They were barely kitted without PPEs, improvised or not. Temporary closures without the provision of protective gears and other preventive protocols will continue to expose frontline health workers to avoidable risks.
For me, each passing day was a gift. With proper medication and management, I returned to a certain stability which was a pleasant relief to the IDC medical team. My first two days in ICU, they said, were very frightening. I was hallucinating; I came in dehydrated; my temperature instability scared them stiff. I could hear one of the medical staff from a din distance praying intensely for me. Dr Ogundokun and Dr Afonja always arrived in time to check for vital signs. The nurses and other health workers took special interest in me. They found my lost appetite and gave me the lease of a second life. In a matter of days, I graduated from an inelastic human form on the rack of pain and treacherous headache into a bubbly athlete eager to take the extra walk around the open space of the Centre. Dr Akinpelu, the physiotherapist, was impressed by the improvement. I was always happy to do the thanksgiving exercise each passing day.
In the ICU, the only thing I could do to prove that I had a life was to write, or memorise lines when writing was impossible. Two senior colleagues were constantly in touch with me, offering inspirational words in those uncertain days. One of them, himself a poet of no mean stature, doubled as my afflatus for the period. Writing was a kind of medicine too. When I became more conscious, I requested that my personal computer be brought from home. The doctors obliged; my wife was alarmed; the computer never arrived. All these things I remembered when I was able to remember.
This was my life in the bush of the impossible virus. If only I could walk out of this place alive, I would tell people around me of the reality of the virus. So beware, do that social distancing religiously, and wear the face mask appropriately until further notice. The mask is no decoration for the chin. And when that ordinary fever or cough is prolonged, or when that respiratory discomfort is accompanied by joint aches, loss of smell or taste, irritation and palpitations, take real caution. The cliché about “seeing your doctor if the ailment persists after three days” is damn real. Test for the virus as early as possible.
What follows hereafter is a string of situational verses and narratives which were composed in my tranquil and sedate moments in my two-week residency in the Infectious Disease Centre, Olodo, Ibadan. With little emendations, I have retained the substance of the reflections as they came to me at the time of writing...
(“All I Remembered in the Bush of the Impossible Virus” is the preface to the collection Cantos & Monologues in the Forest of Coronavirus)