“Dankie Here. Thank you God. God is great. The universe is amazing. Thank you for our second chance.”
After more than two months in the ICU and over 30 days on ventilators, Dr Eugene Campher and his wife, Lera Campher, could only hold each other and cry, thanking God that by a miracle neither of them understood, they had survived Covid.
Just a few weeks earlier, their pulmonologist had only one piece of advice for their daughter: prepare for a double funeral. “He wasn’t trying to scare our children,” says Eugene. “He was trying to be realistic. The chances of us coming off the ventilators were extremely slim. He just didn’t know what else to share with them.”
Lera and Eugene’s four children spent weeks gathered at their daughter’s flat near the Milpark hospital to be near their parents, and yet they could have been 3 000 kilometers away. Covid prohibits visitors, and it was almost impossible to find out what was happening just a stone’s throw away.
“My daughter is a nurse and through sheer persistence she eventually got through to our doctor, but for the most part I think everyone was overwhelmed. There were so many patients. Nurses and doctors and admin staff were working around the clock, and they didn’t know what information to share. How do you spend all day telling people that their loved ones are going to die?”
Walking through the valley of the shadow of death
“When we first began to recover, I was so traumatized by what we had been through that I felt like we’d gone through the gates of hell. Today, I realise that’s not what happened at all. We went through the gates of heaven and had to come back because it wasn’t our time to go,” says Eugene.
It’s been many months since they walked out of Milpark Hospital and were able to hug their children and grandchildren, and long Covid still affects them every day – but Eugene and Lera are alive. They are both proof that you can spend weeks on a ventilator and survive.
How did they do it? It seems there is only one explanation. Love. They had each other, which is incredibly rare in people fighting this virus.
“When I came off the ventilator, all I could think about was Lera. In my bones I knew she needed me. If she could see that she hadn’t been abandoned, that I was by her side, she had a chance of pulling through.”
As a doctor, Eugene had been able to receive special permission to visit Lera in the ICU every evening at 11pm. “A nurse would take me, and I would spend about 30 minutes at Lera’s bedside. That was all my body could handle. After that I was too tired and too upset. But just that 30 minutes a day, was the difference between life and death for both of us, because we knew we weren’t alone.
“Covid doesn’t only ravage your body. It’s devastating to the mind,” says Eugene, who has been writing down his memories in an attempt to explore his trauma and come to terms with it.
“It’s very difficult to describe weeks in the ICU, hooked up on a ventilator and hallucinating. Covid starves the body and the brain of oxygen, and the fear and nightmares that come with that are terrifying. For long stretches I didn’t know where I was or why I was there. I’d been placed in an artificial coma, but during that time, I occasionally woke up, and I thought I was tied down and that my mouth was covered so that I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know what was happening, only that I needed to save myself. I couldn’t interpret what I saw. I didn’t trust the doctors and nurses around me. I thought they were the enemy, and I was frequently petrified,” he says.
“This is the part of Covid that we don’t hear about. That you start losing the will to live because you’re scared and lonely. I watched other patients who didn’t understand why their families hadn’t come to rescue them. They felt completely abandoned and terrified of the caregivers who were trying to save their lives. The tragedy of not only your body failing you, but your mind as well, is difficult to describe.”
This is one of the reasons why Eugene continues to write, capturing the truth of what it means to almost die of Covid, lonely and isolated. The other reason is that he is still piecing together his memories.
But while Eugene is remembering more and more each day, Lera continues to have large gaps in her memories.
“It’s disconcerting not to remember what happened, but then again, perhaps it spares me the trauma of remembrance,” she says. “Once we were out of terrible danger there was more hope, but there was also more awareness, which brings its own suffering.”
The realities of Covid-19
“Covid is unlike anything we’ve ever faced. Why did Lera and I both fall so ill? Our doctor can’t tell us. We’re over 65, so perhaps that’s why, but we don’t have comorbidities, and there were patients in their 40s who were as ill as us, many of whom didn’t make it,” says Eugene.
Before falling ill, Eugene had been running his own practice as a GP in Parys. After 16 years working abroad in countries like Russia, Ireland, Kazakhstan, and across Africa, husband and wife had returned to South Africa to build something new in the homely town based on the Vaal. With Lera as his practice manager and receptionist, Eugene says the nine months that he ran his practice were some of the most rewarding in his life.
And then the global pandemic hit. Eugene suspects he contracted Covid-19 in August 2020 while visiting an old-age home. “Four residents were ill, and we later learnt that they all had Covid,” he says. “As soon as I started experiencing symptoms, I took a test, shut the practice and went home to self-isolate, refusing for Lera to even enter the room.”
Despite these precautions, four days later Lera was also ill, with the couple soon deteriorating to the point where they both needed to be hospitalized.
“Our daughter is a trauma nurse who works in casualty in Vanderbijlpark,” says Eugene. “She had recovered from a mild case of Covid and was taking my oxygen saturation daily. She had seen what this virus could do and was quick to act when she felt we needed to be in hospital.”
In fact, Eugene’s symptoms were so severe after a few days that he sent his family a farewell message. “I believed I was going to die. I said goodbye and that I loved them.”
But Eugene’s ordeal was just beginning. Within a few days, both he and Lera were airlifted to Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg. “Milpark is a centre of medical excellence, but they also had a large number of ventilators, and the most experience in this new illness,” explains Eugene, although his memories of that time are still very fuzzy. “All I really remember is being zipped into yellow plastic bags before we were airlifted because we had Covid.”
Eugene spent 42 days in ICU, and 33 days on a ventilator. He was readmitted twice because he deteriorated again after discharge.
Lera spent 63 days in ICU, 33 days on a ventilator, two weeks in the Covid ward and 10 days in a rehabilitation facility and was unable to walk when the couple was finally discharged. She gets stronger every day, but she continues to struggle with numerous complications.
And yet Eugene and Lera are both filled with hope.
“There were terrifying moments. But then there are moments of light, when our nurses would come and pray for us, or sing with us,” says Lera. “There are angels you meet in life, and more and more I remember the angels. That’s what I want to focus on.”
For Eugene, he and his wife have been given a second chance in life. “I’m sometimes anxious we aren’t making the most of it, but we’re still taking each day at a time. We have a future, and that’s what we’re holding on to.”