Brussels, 2 June 2020 (MIA) – They take you to the hospital and tell you to say goodbye to your wife, and that you’ll talk to her in a couple of hours, Borche Dvojakovski reminisces. He’s a Macedonian national who lives in Belgium, who contracted COVID-19 two months ago, and he shares his thirty-day story of trials and tribulations through hospitals in Brussels.
“While it’s happening, it’s surreal and it doesn’t hit you,” Borche says through bittersweet laughter, sitting down on his terrace with his wife Natasha, enjoying a nice cup of coffee and homemade cookies on a sunny day in spring. Home at last, at peace at last following two hospital stays, out of which he spent five days in intensive care, fighting for his next breath.
It all starts by the end of March. Borche and his two daughters, Marija and Teodora, wake up one morning with a relatively low-grade fever. Marija and Teodora feel much better the next day, Borche’s condition worsens day by day.
“It started off with 37.7 degrees Celsius, then 38, gradually escalating to 40. My doctor wasn’t worried the first time he examined me, but the second time, he said he heard something unusual in my lungs so he referred me to a hospital where I could get tested for COVID19,” he says.
The protocol in Belgium, where two months ago hospitals were overloaded and dangerously close to the French and Italian situation, is such so that only the worst cases with very visible symptoms would get admitted. The rest were left to their own devices, with no doctor visits due to the shortage of protective face masks even for healthcare workers.
“I waited a whole week before being sent to a hospital, and I’m convinced that I would’ve gotten through this much easier if they just sent me to one immediately,” says the 50-year-old former flight instructor.
Reaching Cliniques Universitaires Saint-Luc in Brussels, a COVID19 referral center, the medical staff takes over, leaving him with nothing but his cell phone and asking his wife to leave, telling her that Borche will call her in a couple of hours to update her.
“The hospital was ready, following protocol. You enter a one-way hallway. Hygiene is at the highest level. Everything used to handle a patient is thrown away and some doctors even wear two pairs of gloves, so they can’t even find your vein. They don’t touch you at all. Everything gets disinfected, they put you through all the tests, x-rays, ECG, and they tell you to call home and tell them you’re staying in the hospital.”
Although he felt no pain other than his high fever – which is manageable with paracetamol, and the occasional cough, tests show that Borche’s oxygen levels are too low. Hooked onto machines that measure vitals, doctors were quick to notice that his oxygen state is not improving.
“You lack oxygen, and the doctors think that if you continue like this, your condition can only worsen and it doesn’t hit you until later that you could die.”
Borche is fifty, male, in good health, non-smoker, with no underlying conditions.
“They don’t just admit everyone in ICU, they see that you’re young and have the desire to live,” he says.
Transferred into ICU three days later, Borche isn’t hooked to a regular ventilator, but onto a different respiratory assistance machine, used more and more nowadays to avoid mechanical ventilation. This type of machine injects oxygen into the system through the mouth and nose, which enables the airways to stay open and prevents the lungs from collapsing.
Despite all of ICU’s efforts and mechanical ventilation, his condition does not improve. Borche’s testimony speaks volumes about the medical profession’s helplessness when it comes to this new virus.
“I felt strong muscle aches. I lost 10 kg in 18 days. They reduced some of the oxygen they were giving me, but I still couldn’t breathe normally without it. The antibiotics course continued, as did the constant ‘what do we do, what do we do’ by the doctors.”
Finally, the doctors, torn between different expert opinions – either an oxygen tank at home or steroids – decide for the latter in Borche’s case, even though this option is rarely picked. Steroids may improve respiratory conditions, but they can be damaging to the immune system in the long run. Borche says that, three days and a couple of strong dosages later, he felt much better. Given his new, stable condition, he was to be released from hospital.
Unfortunately, his trials and tribulations don’t end there. Spending a few days at home, he goes out of breath quickly, he can’t walk very long and he struggles climbing the stairs. The hospital provides him with online physical therapy sessions for him to slowly regain his lost lung capacity.
“Whenever I’d exercise with the physical therapists, I’d always ask them if we’d gone too far, if I injured a muscle, because my right side hurt a lot around my ribs, like being stabbed. Inhaling was difficult. I checked my temperature and it was slightly elevated to 37.5. I was sweating bullets. The next morning, I called the pulmonary doctor to ask if the exercises could be doing this, but she told me to get myself to urgent care because my fever had come back.”
Several tests later, the results are in: pneumothorax, a consequence of COVID19.
At that time, he’s COVID19-negative, but the damage done to his respiratory system makes him prone to infections because this illness makes the lungs very fragile.
This time, his hospital stay is shorter, at the regular COVID19 ward. He’s taking large doses of oxygen to clear out his lungs. A few days later, the results are encouraging. His lungs are working well, and the secondary infection has been cleared. Beside physical help, the hospital provides him with psychological help as well.
“A psychologist called me to ask how I was doing, how I felt. I went through something traumatic, so they wanted to make sure I didn’t suffer any permanent consequences. We talked, and soon enough I was back to a good mental state. I was still tired, physically, especially in the muscles, but the exercises helped tremendously. Next week is when I start a new endurance program. I can’t run yet, and if I were to grade my condition from 1-10, I’d give it a six,” Borche says, visibly happy to be home with his wife and daughters again.
Borche’s illness was no cakewalk for his wife, either.
“My only contact with him was talking on the phone with him and his doctor who called me to fill me in. There’s nowhere to turn. Doctors don’t communicate as much as they do in Macedonia, so I was just waiting for his call. He called me the next day, and I was so scared I thought I’d have a heart attack! Before he was taken to the ICU I was very stressed out. Luckily, I had the support of my family and friends,” Natasha says.
Apart from being afraid of the illness, Borche and Natasha were scared of Natasha suffering the same fate as Borche. Worst case scenario, their children would lose both parents.
“I truly don’t wish this fate on anyone. When it’s not happening to you, you just think ‘oh it’s just like the regular flu. I didn’t care before I caught it, either. I told myself ‘eh, it’s whatever’, but once you get to a hospital and realize everything that could have happened to you, and that you could have died, it’s a horrible experience,” Borche says as a response to the people who believe the coronavirus doesn’t exist.
His experience opened his eyes, as well as the eyes of his work colleagues, to the dangers of this virus. It made them become more responsible.
“This virus is no joke. I see how people compare it to a seasonal flu and I disagree. It’s incomparable. The virus is very real and it comes with severe consequences,” says Natasha, who is a biochemist by profession.
The Dvojakovski family decided to get tested for antibodies recently. Their results are good, all four of them have developed an immunity against the virus, at least for now. Science is still in the dark about how long the antibodies protect the immune system. However, the worst is behind them now. They, and especially the children, wish to travel back to North Macedonia to visit their family and friends, as soon as airports and borders reopen.
In the meantime, Borche continues to cooperate with the university clinic that treated him, participating in a large-scale study aimed to help scientists understand COVID19. This study is meant to prevent or better manage an eventual second wave of the pandemic in Belgium.
Translated by Dragana Knežević