Doctors considered me a miracle patient, and insist that I now take things slow, writes 39-year-old Deepak Chandrababu.
I’ll begin with how my week looked like before I tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Besides working 16 hours a day, I exercised twice everyday. With a keen interest to push my body to the limits, I was well onto my surya namaskars, isolated muscle group workouts, HIIT and a healthy home diet. Safe to say, I was in the best shape of my life at the age of 39.
Since the start of the lockdown, I hardly ever stepped out unless it was absolutely necessary and that too with all the precautionary measures. One morning, I woke up with a mild sore throat. Over the course of the day, I started feeling exhausted and my whole body felt strange. The following day, I took a COVID-19 swab test and on July 17, the results came back as positive. And so began a journey into the unknown.
On the same day I tested positive, I consulted my doctor at a private hospital and we began treatment with antibiotics and vitamins. I was told I’m fit enough for home quarantine. The Chennai Corporation staff came home and took me in a van for a chest X-ray at their facility. The next day, our house was sanitised and barricaded. The Chennai Corporation doctor agreed I could be home quarantined as there were no worrying symptoms. It gave me confidence that I could manage this because I was fit and healthy. This feeling didn’t last long.
On my way back home from the Corporation facility, I got the news that my mother has tested positive too. That definitely hit my optimism and guilt kicked in. What have I done? I tried to be so careful and yet I ended up getting COVID-19 and now I have passed it onto my mom as well. Thankfully, my sister tested negative. Once I got home from the Chennai Corporation health facility, there was tension in the air but the three of us spoke and agreed we would be honest with each other about any difficulty we faced.
After two days of on-and-off fever at home, I felt a tightness in my chest - like the insides of my chest were being wrung out like a wet towel. This was the first moment fear crept in. I experienced shortness of breath and realised that I may not have a smooth ride. We booked an immediate consultation with a private doctor and followed it with a chest CT scan. There was a “small infection” in the right lung. The doctor's advice was to get admitted to control the infection. Since there was no bed space available, I reserved my place for the following day.
Once I was admitted at the hospital, four days flew by with blood tests, IVs, anti-viral, anti-coagulants, steroids and it seemed like maybe all I needed was strong medications in the hospital. But I wasn’t feeling better. Another CT scan on day 5 indicated I had developed pneumonia due to COVID-19 and the infection had spread to both my lungs. Later that evening, my breathing was laboured, my body was more tired than ever and I had high fever. I kept checking my saturation levels with a pulse oximeter and it was reducing rapidly. I hit the emergency call button when the reading showed 75.
A panic stricken nurse ran like Flash and sorted oxygen for me within five minutes. At midnight, the duty doctor said that it's highly likely I could be moved to the intensive care unit (ICU) in the morning. It was a very long night for me, deep in thoughts as to how to deliver the message to my mother and sister who were at home. How is my mom feeling? Which friends to inform? How do I handover my responsibilities at work? I passed out with a train of thoughts.
On day 6, I still wanted to cling to some sense of my optimism. I informed my colleagues, friends and relatives on WhatsApp groups and told them not to worry. I had a long chat with mother and sister to reassure them that the ICU was just precautionary. Or so I assumed.
Once in the ICU, when all items are removed from you and all modes of communication are taken away, that’s when the reality of the situation hits you. In the space of a few minutes, I was surrounded by a team of people fitting probes, setting IV lines, connecting me to heart rate monitors and a high velocity oxygen mask. Once they finished sorting me out, I was left lying there with a large mask on my face, wires from various places surrounding me, nurses in personal protective equipment (PPE) walking diligently between various patients in the ICU and the only ever-persistent sound was the beep of the machine that I was connected to.
It is truly at this moment, that I felt the most vulnerable, scared and completely out of control. For the first time in my life, I was overcome by the fear of death. What if I don't recover? What if I never leave this ICU? What if I can never talk to my loved ones again?
A few hours into the ICU, a kind nurse came and told me that they have kept my family informed and if I would like to make a quick call to anyone I could. For a person who has a large social circle and a social life, it was profound how in that moment your mind quickly tells you the one or two or three people that you really want to call. I tried valiantly to tell my mother and sister that I am okay in the ICU. Reflecting about it now, I am sure I was not coherent and probably did a terrible job of conveying that message, but hearing their voice made me feel stronger.
I was in the ICU for five days. All your life achievements, accolades, wishes and fancy lists etc, get stripped down inside the ICU to the bare minimum. Now when I reflect on those days, I do not know how time went by as it all seems hazy. I do recollect the gentle voices of the nurses who ensured that I was ok and fed and taken care of. I regret not being able to see anyone by face but only the strength and hope they reflected in their eyes. I remember an old lady who was so full of energy in the ICU. Her optimism and non-stop chatter with the nurses kept me entertained during weak moments.
There was an old man screaming out in pain at various points and I felt so helpless and angry at this whole event. I remember between all these and the sounds of the monitor beep, I reflected and introspected a lot. Like really, really lots. I introspected on introspecting, if you could do that. I have always carried a positive and socially conscious view on life but I must admit, the reflections were hard, deep and profound. The meaning of life, its purpose, death, memories of my dad whom I lost recently, whether my mom was having the same symptoms as me, thoughts of how I would do anything in the world just to hug my mom and my sister, my journey in this world, my family's journey from being poor to upscale in the society, other patients who may not be as lucky as me, money, my relationships with friends and family, my exes, humanity in general, love, god. I was aware that I was among the lucky few who could afford the treatment and care. It’s hard to digest how so many are dying without being able to get a proper burial or a loving farewell due to this pandemic.
I have always taken obstacles and challenges in life as a learning curve. I knew that this journey in the ICU was perhaps life trying to teach me something but I didn't know what that lesson was going to be.
After five days in the ICU, I spent an additional week in the hospital. I thought the battle was over but the infection to my lungs due to pneumonia was very severe. Lung fibrosis is the terminology. Don’t Google it. I tried and it scared the living daylights out of me. The doctors initially warned me that I might have to carry an oxygen tank with me for the rest of my life.
They said that my life post COVID-19 will not be the same and I need to be mentally prepared for lifestyle changes. The fear factor just kept bouncing back. The doctors insisted that I take things slow and that I should consider myself lucky to be out of the ICU. They considered me a miracle patient. It was surreal listening to all this. You know sometimes you read stories in the news and you wonder, no way, how did this happen. Well, it felt like I was watching my own story in shock.
Taking things slow
When I was discharged, I had lost 8kgs. I had lost all the muscles that I had worked so hard to build and I could barely climb the stairs to my home. I was weaker physically but I felt a surge of energy, love and relief when I saw my mom and sister. Being back home with them is an experience that is hard to pen down in words.
The first few weeks back home was surreal. Weakness, fatigue and the most important of them all brain fog. My ability to think coherently was lacking. It was all a fuzzy thought process. The illness and its after-effects challenges you and tests your mettle. My emotions were taking a journey of its own. Any amount of stress would straightaway lead to that twisting, chest tightness. I realised I also became a bundle of emotions and even the slightest disappointing news would make me feel so uncontrollably sad. It was clear that for version 2 of me to crack life, I needed to start from scratch and to do it slow.
After nearly three months of this journey, I am still being treated to reduce the fibrosis in my lungs. I am back to work and there is some sense of normalcy I suppose but I continue to reflect. In my recent telephonic appointment with the doctor, I asked if it was safe for me to travel to Delhi and the UK where I have my offices. A gobsmacked doctor revealed to me that my situation was life threatening in the ICU. At one stage my oxygen saturation levels had dropped to 56 according to the discharge summary. His advice to me was to take the second innings in life a bit slow.
Taking things slow is not what I do or have done, so this is strange territory for me and I am learning. I have heard stories of people who have had COVID-19 and have breezed through it with hardly any symptoms or trouble. It is hard to digest that a small misstep of contracting the virus has impacted my life and my family tremendously. This thought does keep making an appearance ever so often. Trying to contain this has been a huge spiritual challenge. When I see people show such a cavalier attitude to the virus, I feel the desperate urge to scream and ask them to be careful. So if there is a way you can avoid being careless, then please do.
When I think of how I was gasping for air in the hospital, everyday complications of confrontation between friends, disagreements with family, escalations at work, seemed insignificant. All that I wanted at that moment was to take one long deep breath of air. So as long as you all can take that breath, remember that it is a gift and savour the time in this world by being happy and filled with love.
We are all so lucky and blessed in so many ways that we have plenty of things in our lives we should be grateful for, that we don't really take time to appreciate. There are so many who would do anything in life to get some of what we take for granted.
Despite having this epiphany and preaching it, I keep falling into the same trap of the fast-paced work life, frustration and stress. Over the last three months, we lost two close family members with co-morbidities to COVID-19. During such low points, I look back at the doctors who treated me well, the angels disguised as nurses who were working so tirelessly, the friends who all prayed for my recovery and constantly kept sending loving messages, the loved ones who would do anything to take your pain away. These are all that matters. These are what makes us who we are. The bonds we make in our lives defines us.
If it all sounds too philosophical and preachy, I think it exactly is. No one can live your experience so no one would truly ever know what you went through or are going through but in my efforts to write my journey, if I can make even one person reflect on their lives and learn to be content then I think I have achieved my objective here. I want each of you to value every breath you take.
Deepak Chandrababu is the managing director of Propiti, Gurgaon and is on the board of directors of Technology Blueprint in Warwickshire, UK. He is a former table tennis player and lives with his family in Chennai.