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The Most Important Thing in Life Is Not to Forget to Breathe

Year of the Coronavirus

[Boris (zipa72) posted on 07/12/2020]

Back in February 2020, the coronavirus came to our region. Even before the quarantine was officially declared, I decided to work from home in an improvised basement office. Schools were no longer in session, and my eight-year-old son was already getting used to distance learning. My younger son was only a year-and-a-half and not at all concerned with this new virus.

My family soon started to get used to spending all the time in and around the house (luckily we have a large terrace so we could spend more time outside the house), and we limited outings mostly to my occasional trips to the store, where I was careful to take the precautions of wearing a mask and gloves and disinfecting before entering the house.

As the weather got warmer, we took a few trips with the children, always respecting the recommended pandemic measures and practicing social distancing.

The Road to Pula and Contagion

Autumn came. By then, I already knew that I would have to travel to Pula and resolve some matters that could not wait any longer. I went alone because it was not a good time to travel with the children and expose everyone to unnecessary risks.

The first weekend I slept in my mother’s house in the country. Then I went to Pula and stayed at my sister’s place, to make it easier for me to do everything I needed to do in the city. I did not contact anyone except for some people that we are close to.

It was Tuesday, 13.10 when I went with my best friend for lunch, as we always do when I go to Pula. The next morning he called me and told me he had a fever and was going to be tested for the coronavirus. That evening, quite late, he informed me that his test turned out positive and that he was going into self-isolation.

Up to that point, I had looked at this whole pandemic as something present among us, but I didn’t think it could happen to me. I already knew about cases where members of my extended family were ill. From their experiences, I became more aware that it is possible to pick up that stupid virus even in completely harmless situations.

But now it happened to me.

I didn’t know if I was infected or not. I decided to stay in self-isolation for two weeks anyway, so I picked up the phone and explained my situation to my wife Maja. I would have to stay in Pula a while longer. My sister also decided to stay at home in self-isolation and not risk going to work. Fortunately, her apartment has several rooms and bathrooms, so we could avoid each other.

I would like to mention that in my forty-eight years of life, I have rarely gone to see the doctor. There were only occasional medical examinations to confirm my ability to work. I might have caught a cold or gotten injured here and there, but I think I am in good health and do not have any chronic diseases.

I got a fever for the first time on Friday night.

Medications helped to regulate my temperature but I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. In the morning, I contacted the epidemiologist, who gave me some directions. I had to take a test for coronavirus on Monday. My temperature returned to 38-39 °C.

On Monday evening, I was told that my test results were positive and that I should contact my doctor. When I spoke to the doctor in the morning and explained my symptoms, she sent me to the hospital for further treatment.

Hospital in Pula

On Tuesday, 20.10 an ambulance came to pick me up and drove me to the hospital. The driver was dressed in a full protective suit, and it was the first time I understood the implications of that suit and the seriousness of the whole situation. In his eyes, through goggles, I noticed for the first time how careful the medical staff must be to treat patients infected with the coronavirus.

After a couple of blood tests, they placed me in an isolated Covid ward, took pictures of my lungs, and gave me an oxygen tube. The diagnosis was bilateral Covid pneumonia. I slowly began to get used to the fact that doctors and other staff visited us exclusively in full protective equipment. At that time, I thought that I would be sent in a week or two.

From that moment began a period that I remember only in pictures because my health was deteriorating and I was mostly lying in bed. I thought that I had spent only one night in that ward and that in the morning, I was sent to a hospital in Rijeka, some hundred kilometres away. Much later, I reconstructed the course of the events, based on conversations with Maja and doctors, but mostly from the history of messages and phone calls. I learned that I had been in that ward for six days and that I had been sent to Rijeka on Sunday.

That Sunday, a doctor came. He told me that my condition had worsened and they will send me under anaesthesia to a respiratory centre at the Rijeka Hospital. I should breathe much easier there. All I asked for then was just to be allowed a few minutes to send a message to Maja so she would know where I would be.

Then came the darkness.

According to what I heard after leaving the hospital, I arrived in Rijeka alive only thanks to the professional team that was with me in the ambulance. As soon as we arrived at the Rijeka hospital, they immediately put me on a respirator.

Respirator and Waking From a Coma

I don’t know how much time passed. I slowly became aware of the sounds around me and the voices calling to me. I especially remember the soothing voice of a doctor. He told me that I was in the hospital, that I was in good hands, and that my wife and sister had called and told me that I should not worry about anything. He told me to think of beautiful things, of my wife and children, and to concentrate on breathing. He also told me not to worry if I can’t, because I was connected to a device that would breathe for me.

That was the moment when I realised that things depended on me and my breathing. I remember trying to calm down by counting breaths, but I can’t even try to remember when I gave up counting. At one point, I became very aware of a tube that was in my throat that made any speech impossible and made it difficult to swallow. Every time I inhaled and exhaled, it was accompanied by the quiet, but encouraging, sound of the respirator. It sounded like some sort of valve that was releasing air.

I didn’t know what awaited me from that moment. I didn’t even know how much time had passed. I could not move. I didn’t have enough physical strength in me, which was a sign that I had been lying down for a long time.

Then my condition worsened again, and I was put to sleep once more. I can't describe those many moments of falling asleep because the images that went through my head at the time are indescribable. All I know is that I was scared, and I tried everything I could to suppress those images. I tried to think of nice things, I tried to evoke images of my wife and children, but persistent and disturbing images kept coming to me. At one point, all those images melted away and were replaced by a picture of my Maja, holding my hand with one hand and holding it to my chest with the other. And she smiled at me consolingly, though worriedly. She calmed me down and was with me until I fell asleep.

The light came again, with periods of disturbing images, which Maja would regularly drive away and comfort me.

At first, I couldn’t open my eyes, I just saw the light and heard the sounds around me. I heard a voice saying: “He’s waking up!” I also heard them calling me by name, but I couldn’t react. Some time passed, and my right eye opened slightly. I could see some shadows moving around the room. It was a while before I opened my other eye. It didn’t really help, because I saw everything twice now. Then they noticed I was awake and gathered around me. I only saw protective suits, goggles and visors and masks. I noticed that some of them had names written on their visors. I was unable to read them. I tried unsuccessfully to remember their eyes. I thought: these are the people who saved me, and I would not know them or greet them on the street if I ever meet them again.

I hear the calm voice of the doctor again. He tells me that I am getting much better, but that I have to stay in the hospital for some time. I am trying to communicate with my eyes, but it’s not easy. We did not agree in advance on any signals. He asks me if the tube in my throat bothers me. I blinked affirmatively.

My hands are tied which didn’t upset me because I knew it was for my own good. Two nurses stood by my bed and discussed how they could untie my hands now that I was awake. Somehow I managed to raise the index finger of my right hand and signal that I didn’t want to be untied. I was worried about not doing something in my sleep, about starting to pull out all those tubes that were in me. I didn’t know then that I didn’t even had the strength to raise my hand, let alone pull something.

I don’t think I slept too much that night. I was afraid of psychedelic dreams, I was scared that the situation will get worse. I was too scared to fall asleep. I had some feeling if I stayed awake, I would have some control. The clock on the wall was blurry, but I still tried to follow the movement of its hands.
All sorts of thoughts ran through my head. Will I ever see my Maja and children again? Of course, I will, I told myself. I’m not giving up yet. I still have a lot to give and a lot to do. I have never taken my older son Toma camping. That needs correcting. I have so much to tell Maja as soon as I get home. Nothing else mattered to me – I just wanted to go back to my family.
I remember one nurse telling me that I have to have confidence in their expertise and allow my body to rest. I managed to raise the thumb of my right hand as confirmation. I probably fell asleep then.

I had no idea how much time had passed while I was in a coma. It must have been three or four days. In fact, it was nine.

The next day (I later found out it was Tuesday), doctors gathered around me and told me that I was breathing nicely on my own and that they would take me off the respirator. They moved my bed away from the wall. One of the doctors crawled behind me and pulled that tube out of my throat. What an awkward feeling it is and what a relief at the same time. I sighed – my voice was deep and hoarse. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I was thirsty. It was completely normal, and the doctor gave me some water. I felt that tiny bit of fluid, it was like flooding going through my throat.

They put an oxygen mask on me. It covered my entire unshaven face, like an inflatable diving mask. The freshness of oxygen passed through me, and suddenly everything was a little easier. It didn’t take long, and one of the doctors said he believed they could switch me to a less restrictive mask. It covered only my nose and mouth and had some sort of balloon at the bottom that was filled with oxygen. That was more bearable. Now I could say a few words.

I got a syringe with water, with a tube attached to it, leading to my mouth. I was able to dose the water sip by sip. I was not allowed to drink too much, so I made sure that at least five minutes passed between sips. That clock on the wall went so slowly. One “filling” of the syringe would take me about forty-five minutes, and then I would ask them to refill my water.

That water tube tends to fall out of my mouth. Only then did I realize how powerless I was. I tried to raise my hand to my mouth and push the tube back, but I couldn’t pinpoint my mouth. Luckily, someone would come into the room soon and help me. I can’t describe what it felt like when I first managed to insert the tube into my mouth on my own. I believe I also cursed out loud.

In the morning, I had an ultrasound examination. It seemed to me as if someone was pressing me with the full weight of a boot on my chest. I knew it wasn’t like that and that I was just sensitive, but I could hardly wait for those examinations to end.

Someone asked me if I needed anything. Out of the blue, I asked if I could get some yoghurt or something. I just heard the voice of one of the technicians: “If a man wants yoghurt – give him yoghurt!” Sip by sip, I felt as if I had been served fine delicacies at some grand feast. I enjoyed it so much.

A doctor approached me and asked if I wanted to talk to someone on the phone. Total disbelief and I just nodded. He asked me the number, and at that moment, I realized how much we are slaves to technology. All the numbers are on my phone. The phone probably stayed in Pula. I panicked trying to remember a number and the doctor had to calm me down. “We’ll find the number”, he said, “don’t worry about that.” Then I remembered my mother’s number and dictated it to the doctor. It was ringing. He puts the phone next to my ear, and I heard my mom. I don’t know what we were talking about, it was a short conversation, but finally, it was a familiar, warm voice. There were tears on both sides.

I don’t know how much time has passed. The doctor approached me again with the phone and said that my wife was calling me. He put the phone to my ear and I just said “hey,” and then I enjoyed listening to her voice. I heard her voice tremble, how worried she is, and trying to stay calm. She told me that I have nothing to worry about, that everything is fine at home, that she and the children are fine, and that I just need to think about my recovery and breathing. That call meant everything in the world to me. Nothing was more important to me than that.

During the day they played music in the rooms. There was some rock from the eighties and nineties, Prljavo Kazalište, Crvena Jabuka, Bijelo Dugme, but also there was Oliver Dragojević. Oliver somehow suited me best in this whole situation. Everyone should listen more to Oliver’s songs – they heal.
One of the daily activities I was looking forward to was the arrival of two physiotherapists, who helped me to do the breathing exercises. Always cheerful and smiling, and in a good mood and talkative. They brought me tea! Plain water was already a little tiring for me. These exercises led me to strengthen my arms. By then, I could already control the movements of both hands, but I didn’t have the strength to lift both hands at once. I could only dream of sitting or getting up on my own.

Looking back on all that, I can only express my gratitude to all the doctors and other medical personnel. These are people who approached every patient with so much professionalism and calmness. The conditions in which they work are difficult. Those protective suits make it hard for them to breathe, their glasses and visor are often foggy, and they get quite hot under all those layers. Nothing bothered them to continue to give me a sense of security and calm, because I knew I was in good hands. Thank you, people.

One day one of the nurses asked me if I needed anything. I just reached out with my hand, and she accepted it, sat down next to me and talked to me for a few minutes. In the end, she thanked me for reminding her that sometimes patients need a human touch and a warm word. Even when having two or three layers of gloves and a mask.

Then I asked her if I could get a pen and a sheet of paper because I would like to write down some thoughts. She returned quickly with a couple of folded sheets of paper and a pen. At first, it was hard for me to write. The letters were crooked, drunken, and the sheet was slipping, but with a little persistent practice, that also improved. I made the first notes that led to this text. I even drew sketches of some things I want to make in the future. With paper and pen, time passes much faster.

I was soon transferred to another ward. It is still intensive care, but patients are in a less critical condition. I was there for a couple of days, we could talk, and I got my first meals on a plate. As I could not even sit on my own yet, I ate almost laying down. The nurse had to feed me because I still couldn’t do it alone. There was no outside line phone in that room, and I couldn’t call my family.

Time passed slowly, and I was getting better. They were reducing my oxygen flow, which meant I was recovering. Physiotherapists visited us regularly, we even came to the point that, with their help, I managed to sit down. We did breathing exercises. I never thought I would have to learn to breathe and walk again. Such situations have led me to realize what a privilege is an ordinary thing like breathing, and how much it is taken for granted. I watched other patients as they exercised, and for a moment, I got jealous when I realized that some of them can even get up. Well, that just means they’re recovering, and they’re are getting better. I’ll get up as well, but it will take time and effort.

Transfer to another hospital ward

The time has come to transfer me to less restricted Covid ward, at the Sušak hospital in Rijeka. Driving in the back of an ambulance seemed like a trip to me. I finally felt the fresh air and sun on me.

The ward I came to was different from what I was used to so far. Doctors and nurses are not constantly present in the rooms, but they periodically enter, give therapy, give our meals, change our beds. The big advantage is that I can talk to other patients. At one point there are six of us in the room, some are there for completely different reasons, but they have to stay for a while because they have been tested positive for the coronavirus. Time passed faster.

Physiotherapy was continued daily. At that time, I was capable of getting out of bed for a minute or two as well as take two small steps back and forth. My head was spinning terribly and I had to sit down and rest for a while. The physiotherapist told me that this was normal, given all that I had been through it all. He let me know that the recovery would be quite long and that I needed to be persistent.

Upon arriving at that ward, I asked the man lying in bed next to me if I can borrow his phone to call home. I called my mom, dictated the information where I was, and asked if her to send me any phone so I could call her and Maja more regularly. The next day the phone arrived. Maja told her friends in Rijeka where I was and what I needed and everything arrived before I thought it was possible. Up to that point, all my belongings had consisted of a ballpoint pen and a couple of sheets of paper. Now the whole world has opened up to me. Although it wasn’t my phone and I didn’t have all the contacts stored in it, nor the access to my email account or social media, I had direct contact with Maya, mom, sister and my best friend. I could also read the news and watch something on Youtube. There were also a few T-shirts. It feels good to be wearing something again, at least in part.

After a few days, the doctors informed me that they would send me back to the hospital in Pula for some more tests and further physical recovery. I was overwhelmed with a sense of relief and happiness. It was the very first serious hint that this hospital episode of mine was coming to an end.
I spent the next few days waiting and exercising. I even read the entire “Treasure Island” by Robert L. Stevenson, in the English language. Some nights were long, and it was hard to fall asleep. At first, it was because of the silence – I couldn’t hear the sounds of all those monitors and cameras I had been used listening to.

Return to Pula

It was Monday morning when one of the doctors said to take me off the extra oxygen. At that time I already had only a tube with oxygen under my nose and I was getting only two litres of oxygen.

On Tuesday, an ambulance came to pick me up and we left for Pula.
The very next day my sister sent me my belongings. Finally. I want to mention one thing that caused me the most discomfort, and that is that I was in diapers the whole time until then. They had to change my clothes and clean me. Now I was finally able to do it myself and put on clean underwear. Anyone who hasn’t tried it doesn’t know how good it feels and how much confidence it brings back.

The period of several medical examinations follows. The doctor came to me as soon as she received some results and explained them to me, as well as informing me that the situation is normalizing and that she would not keep me in the hospital for a long time. I will be able to continue my physical recovery at home. I was in the hospital for a whole month. It’s been a long period and I could hardly wait to get out, but I needed a few more days for that to happen.

My cell phone arrived with my things, so I spent a lot of time catching up, contacting people who sent messages of support. Dear friends, thank you all, those messages meant a lot to me, as well as the knowledge that my family has your full support.

Physiotherapists visited me twice every day and help me exercise. First, there are breathing exercises. Then, I would get out of bed and take a short walk. At first, it was only to the window and back to bed. Then a little stroll down the hall. Twice a day, ten meters, in the beginning, another time it was twenty. I once asked if we could go down the hall all the way to the coffee machine. I took one bill with me, bought coffee, and proudly walked back to bed. Since then, I have been able to take a walk on my own and I would go for coffee every day before lunch. That half-filled small plastic cup of coffee would last me until after dinner. It was more evidence that I can do it than I really needed that coffee.

One afternoon a nurse appeared in my room and said: “Boris! I’m Susie …” My cousin looked for me and realized that I was on the same floor where she worked, just in another ward. I was completely overwhelmed by emotions. After a whole month, I finally saw a familiar face – someone “mine”. She has been visiting me ever since before she came to her shift, as much as she could. Thank you, Susie.

On Tuesday, 24.11 the doctor has approved that I could be released from the hospital and go home to recover.

Thirty-five days have passed since I first went to the hospital. At first, I was in the ward for six days, which I don’t really remember. Then I was connected to a respirator for ten days (of which I was in a coma for nine days). The rest of the time I spent in several wards at the Rijeka and Pula hospitals.

Leaving the hospital

I called my sister and she arranged transportation for me to my mom. About an hour before I was discharged from the hospital I got dressed, packed my things and waited. A carrier with a wheelchair came, but I just put my things on them and, holding on to the handles of the wheelchair, slowly walked to the elevator, then to the exit from the hospital. There was Davor who drove us in my car to my mother’s house in the village, about twenty kilometres from Pula.

I am here even now as I write this. Clean air, regular walks and breathing exercises have made me recover quite well already. It will take a few more months to fully recover.

I lost fifteen kilograms in the hospital. The muscles are slowly returning to function, I have already regained a few kilograms. I am still far from some running or any greater physical effort. My range is a walk of a kilometre or two, climbing stairs to the first floor, and jumping about ten centimetres high. The important thing is that I am getting better with each day. I can’t wait for the day when I will be able to go on the road and hug my Maja and children again.