Blessed To Survive COVID-19

Ally Khan spent 166 days at Mediclinic Pietermaritzburg last year – most of them on a ventilator – as he battled a severe case of COVID-19. This is his story.  

When 56-year-old Ally Khan started feeling unwell and out of breath in early 2021, the initial diagnosis was a post-nasal drip and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But two days later, when he presented with fever, weakness, and an elevated heart rate, he was sent for a COVID-19 test. 

The results came back positive, and at first Ally isolated at home under the guidance of his doctor and with help from his wife Rahouda – a theatre nurse at Mediclinic Pietermaritzburg. But when he started struggling to breathe, Rahouda decided to call an ambulance. “They settled me in the ward and from there, I don’t know what happened,” says Ally.

The reason for this, Rahouda explains, is that Ally experienced a drop in “oxygen sats” two days after admission, prompting a transfer to ICU as soon as space became available. 

Ally Khan and family

“Oxygen sats refers to the amount of oxygen travelling in your red blood cells,” explains Dr Devan Gounder, the physician who treated Ally. “Normal levels are between 95% and 100%. If your saturation level drops, you’re depriving your organs of oxygen, which may lead to permanent damage.”

Fragmented memories

Over the weeks that followed, Ally’s oxygen sats went on a roller-coaster ride – stable periods were interspersed with sudden drops, and the possibility of intubation always loomed. Then, on 13 March, the level plummeted to 45%. Intubation was no longer a possibility, but a necessity. 

Ally spent the next few months on a ventilator. During this time, he lost a quarter of his body weight and his muscles wasted away, leaving him immobile. 

Much of that period is a blur, Ally says, although he does remember fragments. Like the time he woke up and tried to speak to a nurse, only to discover he’d had a tracheostomy and a tube was preventing his vocal cords from functioning. “This is a procedure we perform on patients who are attached to a ventilator for a long time,” explains Dr Gounder. “We performed it to help remove secretions from Mr Khan’s airways more easily and allow a safer passage of oxygen to his lungs.” 

There was also the daily ordeal of having blood drawn at 3am. And at 4am, when Ally was bathed, he had to rely on the nurses to manoeuvre his naked and helpless body.

Keeping the faith

Amid all the physical discomfort, Ally says the worst part of those long months was being unable to perform his daily prayers. Instead, the nurses would play a verse from the Quran while he slept, and his physio would recite a verse while she worked on him. “The staff took really good care of me,” he says. “They became family,” Rahouda adds.

Rahouda also cared for her husband lovingly, keeping him neatly groomed and making sure he received passive physiotherapy – exercises that would later help Ally recover his ability to use his muscles.

“Mr Khan’s family were amazing,” says Dr Gounder. “They were very supportive of the medical team. Even though they couldn’t always be there physically, they motivated him through video calls. We also had an amazing team of doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and dieticians. We would often challenge each other to achieve optimal results for Mr Khan. And his determination and fighting spirit won his battle. From day one, he was determined to be a survivor of COVID-19.” 

Strength to recover

But Ally’s eventual return home was bittersweet. He discovered that two close family members had passed away while he was in hospital. And over the next two months, two more passed away from COVID-19. The losses left him in need of both physical and emotional healing.

Today, the only visible reminder of Ally’s ordeal is the thin plastic tube he still wears, connecting him to an oxygen supply. And even that will hopefully soon be a thing of the past as he regains the strength to function without it.   

As a couple, Ally and Rahouda say they’re closer than ever. And their faith is the strongest it’s ever been. “We want people to know that God was faithful to us,” says Rahouda. “And when you serve God, look how He rewards you.” 

Image credit: Wade Howard/New Media

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