12 days in a coma: Cape Town man learns how to eat with knife and fork after Covid-19 anguish

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Henry Alexander and his wife Dr Davinia Masimila.
Henry Alexander and his wife Dr Davinia Masimila.
  • Henry Alexander, who had comorbidities, battled a critical case of the coronavirus for about three months.
  • During this time, the Cape Town dad had to learn from scratch how to make use of cutlery.
  • After coming close to death, Alexander has fully recovered and is back at work.

Five weeks in hospital. Three cardiac arrests. Two weeks in a coma. One vicious virus.

This was the experience of Henry Alexander who had to learn how to walk again and use a knife and fork after being infected with Covid-19.

Although most patients experience a mild or even asymptomatic case of the coronavirus and it usually resolves without the need for hospitalisation, the 43-year-old from Cape Town suffered a critical case.

Alexander was also more susceptible to infection and complications since he had existing medical conditions that included Type 2 diabetes mellitus and chronic hypertension.

The father of one tested positive on Father's Day, 21 June, and at the time presented a dry cough, severe tiredness, body pains and headaches. However, within five days, his condition took a turn for the worse.

"I became short of breath and very weak. I was rushed to hospital and was admitted to the intensive care unit at Cape Gate Mediclinic."

On the second day of admission, he required supplementary oxygen and was placed on high flow nasal cannula oxygen. He then developed Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome and had to be placed in a medically induced coma and on life support.

READ | Cape Town hospitals prove oxygen therapy can improve Covid-19 patients' survival rate

Research showed that Covid-19 patients who required mechanical ventilation had a higher mortality rate compared to those who were on high flow nasal cannula oxygen.

"I was in the coma for 12 days and during this time the intensivist had to change me to three different ventilation machines. I also had three cardiac arrests for which I required resuscitation and I developed an acute kidney injury."

Alexander's wife, a healthcare worker who also tested positive and was in isolation at home, feared she would lose her husband.

Dr Davinia Masimila, a gynaecologist who works at Tygerberg Hospital said:

"It was the longest 12 days of my life, knowing that as a wife and doctor you can do nothing to help your husband or visit him, as I was still in isolation myself."

"I literally had to wait for the doctor's telephonic update every afternoon to find out how Henry was doing and if his condition was improving. Some days were better than others and then there were days when I thought that I will not even have a chance to say goodbye to him if he should not survive this."

She said upon her husband's extubate from the coma on 10 July, he had to relearn how to walk, including how to do basic daily tasks such as using cutlery.

"After being in the hospital for almost five weeks, he came home to us where his rehabilitation continued. He still required home oxygen therapy because of the lung injury he sustained due to the Covid-19 infection." 

It took Alexander two months to recover after being discharged from hospital. He is currently back at work and doing well.

Optimism over critical Covid-19 recovery rate

Early data suggested that about two thirds of patients with critical Covid-19 would recover, said Professor Burtram Fielding, a molecular biologist from the University of the Western Cape.

However, he believes there will be a higher recovery rate in the new Covid-19 peaks. "This will be due to better evaluation and monitoring; and medication."

Fielding said, in his opinion, enough information was now known about effective treatments to minimise the deaths of critical Covid-19 patients.

"Researchers can now, just by looking at the symptoms of a patient, determine six to nine days in advance whether a patient is at risk of developing critical Covid-19.

"This allows ample time to prescribe anti-clotting and anti-inflammation medication. This reduces the risk of dying by about 30 to 50% - in some studies - while these medications also counteract the main ways Covid-19 causes damage in the body of patients with critical Covid-19."

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