After weeks in hospital, Samuel wins battle against serious COVID-19


Samuel Njenga spent weeks in hospital, fighting for his life after contracting COVID-19. He is so thankful that, despite his family's reduced income and the financial pressure caused by the pandemic, they kept their Discovery Health Medical Scheme membership.

Last year in June, Samuel Njenga (53) found out he had COVID-19 on the same day that his brother-in-law passed away from the disease.

"I went into isolation as soon as I got my positive COVID-19 test result," says Samuel. "That meant I couldn't be with my wife, Thembela, and the rest of the family to grieve and to help with the funeral arrangements. It all hit us so hard."

Healthy Samuel was cautious throughout pandemic

Samuel, Thembela and their two children, Wanjiru (22) and Njenga (18), were extremely careful to limit their exposure to COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, even when the country was on lower lockdown levels.

"Our whole household behaved as though we were always on level five. We'd wash hands and sanitise regularly, wear masks whenever needed, and be very careful in general," says Samuel. Samuel is a management consultant. He works with many companies and lectures postgraduate students at several business schools. "Most of my work was happening virtually at the time, so I didn't have physical contact with many people."

He's always been healthy overall, seldom getting even minor bugs. He loves open spaces and runs regularly, up to 10 km at a time.

Samuel tests positive for COVID-19 hours after his brother-in-law dies

Samuel thinks he contracted the virus during a short visit with his brother-in-law, Chumani Makapela (44), who lived in the same neighbourhood. Two days after that visit, Chumani received a positive COVID-19 test result. Soon after, Samuel also fell ill. He had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 at the time, as his age group wasn't eligible yet.

"I wanted to lie in bed all the time. I was very tired when teaching classes, and I had headaches. I didn't take it too seriously and only visited a doctor a few days later, where I got tested for COVID-19."

In the meantime, Chumani's condition deteriorated rapidly, and he passed away at home before he could be taken to hospital. While a distraught Samuel and Thembela were waiting for the undertakers to arrive, Samuel received a call from his own doctor informing him he also had COVID-19. Samuel went into isolation immediately. His doctor phoned to check up on him regularly, and a physio visited him, giving him breathing exercises to do.

Samuel is hospitalised, machines keeping him alive

A week later, things took a turn for the worse for Samuel. He can't remember much of what followed, and relies mainly on his wife's, doctors' and nurses' memories of it all.

"I'd spent all night tossing, turning and sweating. The next day, my doctor put me on a drip and took X-rays, which showed that I had pneumonia. On my doctor's instruction, my wife rushed me to Netcare Milpark Hospital, where they struggled to find a bed for me because the hospital was so full."

"Visitors weren't allowed at the time, but a nurse let my wife peek through the ICU door at me, because I think she realised I was unlikely to survive. Thembela's last image of me was very distressing - me battling, with tubes all over me. She says it's a scene she'd love to forget."

"My lungs soon stopped functioning completely and the doctors put me on an ECMO machine as a last resort."

  • An ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine pumps blood outside of the body, allowing the heart and lungs to rest and heal.

"I think I was very lucky. My age, overall health and fitness and lack of chronic conditions counted in my favour - as well as there being an ECMO machine available."

Samuel had several "COVID dreams" (as he calls them) in ICU. "In one of them, I heard a doctor telling me to stop fighting with the machines and to let them breathe for me."

"I became a celebrity in the hospital"

For the next two weeks, Samuel was in a coma, fighting for his life. "It was an incredibly traumatic time for my family, who were concerned about me and mourning the death of my brother-in-law at the same time."

When Samuel came out of his coma, he was confused. "I woke up in a strange place, tied to a bed. But I soon became a celebrity in the hospital. Everyone wanted to see the guy who survived COVID 19, after being so seriously ill!"

When he came out of his coma, he had to regain strength and be taught how to swallow, eat and talk again. He also contracted an infection which took time to treat. "Eventually I was allowed to sit on the bed and then on a chair. My legs were so wobbly and weak. Even sitting on a chair would tire me out."

Samuel spent a total of six weeks in Milpark Hospital's ICU. He was discharged straight to a rehabilitation facility, where he spent a few days, before continuing rehabilitation at his home with a physiotherapist.

"My healing was a miracle"

Samuel is grateful for the medical staff who treated and cared for him. "Nurses would phone my family and hold the phone to my ear while I was in a coma. And my son would play his saxophone over the phone. The nurses say they could see my oxygen levels going up during these calls." "My healing was a miracle for which I am eternally grateful. I left hospital with smooth skin and no bed sores. The staff would trim my nails and cut my hair. They would rub my sore muscles. The nursing staff who had cared for me so graciously danced as they escorted me to the ambulance that took me to the rehab centre."

As part of his emotional healing, Samuel recently visited the hospital ICU room where he had spent so many weeks, to thank the medical staff in person.

"If we didn't have our DHMS medical aid, I don't know how my illness would've ended"

Samuel is relieved that he had medical aid to pay for his treatment. "In 2020, I lost a lot of work due to COVID-19. But given the context, as a family we decided to keep our medical aid membership and rather cut other things from our budget. If we didn't have our DHMS medical aid cover, I don't know how my illness would've ended. I've been told that my hospitalisation and treatment cost more than R2 million. There's absolutely no way we would've been able to afford that ourselves."

"While in hospital, I heard people from DHMS phoning the ward a few times to see how I was doing. They would also phone my wife to talk about the bills - the bulk of which they paid, aside from a few co-payments. That entire process was handled so well by DHMS that I have a lot of respect and gratitude for them. It gave us real peace to know that the bills were taken care of."

  • Samuel was so grateful to DHMS that he wrote a LinkedIn post about it all, to which Discovery Health CEO, Dr Ryan Noach, responded.

"Ryan also got in touch with me privately, which shows me that there's a strong element of care at DHMS."

Moving on from COVID-19

More than a year after his discharge, Samuel and his family are still recovering from the ordeal, with the help of a counsellor. "We have struggled with a lot of psychological trauma and we underestimated the impact the whole episode had on our children. When I left rehab, I found that Wanjiru had gone into my emails and answered queries on my behalf. She'd gone into my bank account to pay bills and discussed arrangements where necessary. The hardest part for them was celebrating Father's Day while I lay in a coma."

"I have also become more susceptible to getting sick and tend to get any bug that's going around." Samuel is studying towards his doctorate and has also experienced problems with his memory and concentration.

"I haven't got back into an exercise regime yet - which I think might be more of a mental block than a physical issue. A few months ago, I signed up for Discovery Vitality to motivate me to maintain a healthy lifestyle."

Despite these challenges, Samuel remains positive. "I will keep telling my story because it enables other people to reflect on their own experiences, but it also helps with my own healing process."

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