Surviving Covid-19

Disclosure: This article was commissioned and funded by the Profmed Medical Aid Scheme.

Profmed member Floris Burger tells of his remarkable journey with Covid-19 – and the nurse who saved his life.

By Margot Bertelsmann

Covid survivor Floris Burger was ventilated for 14 days, but made a full recovery.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus in March, Profmed member Dr Floris Burger, a 57-year-old mining consultant, was completing a business trip to Sierra Leone via Kenya, Ghana and Liberia. “It’s difficult to believe now, but nobody wore a mask on the flight or observed social distancing protocols.” Floris laughs at the memory.

“I thought my chances of exposure to the virus were high. I decided to get tested, despite the fact that I was symptom-free,” he recalls.

Floris tested positive for Covid-19. 

“My GP consulted me daily telephonically. I had to record any symptoms. Three days after I was diagnosed, I felt slight headache and fatigue. I began to feel worse and worse, but I kept following the advice of my doctors: rest, check your temperature, drink water.” 

This is where things begin to get murky. Floris lives alone, but friends and family checked in via telephone. Unbeknown to everyone, including Floris himself, his lungs were struggling to take enough oxygen into his bloodstream to remain lucid. Floris has memory loss of that time – a symptom of hypoxia, or dangerously low levels of oxygen.

Enter Sisters Rebecca Makua and Lekwetji Komani from the Department of Health.

“Rebecca contacted me on Friday 27 March for a routine check-up on Covid-19 positive individuals. She then informed Lekwetji that she was concerned, that I didn’t sound well and that I stay alone. Lekwetji followed up on Sunday but was unable to get hold of me. She called me five times. She then arranged an ambulance, informed the closest hospital that a Covid-19 positive person was on the way, and called my next-of-kin to unlock my front door as I was semi-conscious by then,” Floris recalls. “These two women literally saved my life.”

“They told me, ‘You are very sick’. I can’t recall much of that. But the physician says I probably would have died on Sunday night alone at home if these two nursing sisters had not intervened.”

Floris was so ill that he had to be put in an induced coma and intubated. Attempts to let him breathe on his own from about day nine failed. But despite poor odds, Floris was finally extubated after 14 days. He was moved to a normal ICU ward after 18 interminable days.

Floris is still piecing together the chronology of his hospital stay. Chunks of time are missing from his memory. Delirium is common in intubated patients, and Floris is amused at some of the tricks his mind played on him. “I thought the ICU was being turned into a curio shop; I complained about there being 37 people waiting outside the door! I know I was obstructive. I even proposed marriage to a person in an ‘ebola’ suit if she was prepared to smuggle me out of this place.”

“I can laugh now because I know I was so lucky,” he says. “I was treated fantastically in the hospital. All the doctors, all the staff, from the nurses, the internal medicine specialist, pathologist, physician … I cannot stop praising them.”

Floris also has positive sentiments about his medical fund, Profmed. “With terrible timing, I had changed over to a hospital plan with Profmed at the end of last year. Profmed was thorough and settled bills without debate. Profmed also advised me to consult with a psychiatrist. It’s great that they acknowledge, as do I, that I need to process the experience and return to health physically as well as mentally.”

Profmed’s CEO Craig Comrie is clear on the need for holistic care. “It’s concerning that we’ve seen a drop-off of claims for psychiatrists and psychologists. You’d think a medical scheme would be grateful not to have to pay,” Craig jests, “but the opposite is true, because we understand the negative long-term implications if people do not look after their mental health.”

Craig says Profmed has seen a threefold increase in telemedicine claims since the lockdown. “We have revised our payment structures and now pay up to 80% of the normal consultation rates, where the pre-lockdown telemedicine rate was 65%,” he explains. “For psychiatrists and psychologists, we will pay 100% of a normal consultation rate, to encourage members to get the care they need.”

Floris says his experience reminded him of the drive to do good in most humans. “It brought home to me the nature of the frontline workers in the medical fraternity.”

To illustrate, Floris tells a special anecdote. “After I was extubated, a nurse came to me and said, ‘What would be the best news possible for you today?’ I said, ‘I’m just happy to be speaking to you.’ She said, ‘No, that’s not it.’ I babbled on: ‘If you told me that we had achieved a cohesive society with less inequality that would be the best.’ She looked at me and said, ‘No, it’s that you tested negative, twice!’ This person, whom I didn’t know, threw her hands in the air and celebrated with me. She was genuinely happy for me.”

Craig Comrie wants to acknowledge the nurses who gave Floris Burger exemplary care. “Many people are apprehensive of treating Covid-19 positive patients, and these nurses went above and beyond in their care. They are real heroes.”

Craig says it can be difficult to live alone during a pandemic. “Human beings struggle with loneliness. According to Profmed data, people who live alone are less likely to comply with instructions from their doctors.”

“Dr Burger’s story teaches us to be alert to what is happening to you. Do your own checklist of Covid-19 symptoms. Phone your GP. Many people are asymptomatic, so know you can get the disease from someone who has it without knowing it – or you may be the carrier.”

“If there’s anything we can learn from Dr Burger’s story it’s that we need to check in with each other,” says Craig. “While isolation and social distancing is a must there are many other ways to ensure we stay connected.”

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