As the third wave of the pandemic grips the country, Jan Simonsz-Coe (35) of Cape Town is sharing what she went through to heighten awareness of the virus and warn against “Covid fatigue”.
“Cautionary tales are imperative right now,” she says. “It’s so easy to forget the reality of the situation we’re in. There’s also a certain level of stigma attached to the things I’ve been through and people shouldn’t be forced to suffer in silence. I want to shed a light on my experiences, for myself as much as everyone else.”
This is Jan’s story.
“My husband, Dave, and I had longed for a baby for years but the timing was never right. Eventually we decided to go for it despite the pandemic – largely because my mother had been battling cancer for more than 12 years and I wanted to have a baby before she died.
I got pregnant but I was brutally sick and Dave and my mom had to take care of everything. After the first trimester, we headed to the coast for a break. I started to feel better and could manage most of a plate of food. I began to think I’d turned a corner – little did I know what lay ahead.
We were still on holiday when my husband started showing signs of Covid. The next week was a jumble of chaos and quarantine which ended in 10 of us in my family getting Covid. My mom and my dad, who has various comorbidities, were among them.
I tested positive too but at first I thought I’d dodged the bullet. My symptoms were basically exhaustion and nausea but that I could handle. Dave, on the other hand, went from bad to worse. We had to rush back to Cape Town and took him straight to Kingsbury Hospital.
The country was in the peak of the second wave and hospital beds were at a premium so he was sent home with the necessary meds. My dad, however, was admitted for a while. My very sick mother somehow dodged the worst of Covid.
As for me, things started to get terrifying pretty quickly. I couldn’t stop vomiting and went into labour at 23 weeks. I was also bleeding profusely. Dave rushed me to hospital where I heard a nurse say, “Doctor, there’s just so much blood.”
I was taken to the maternity ward and put on medication to try to keep my baby – a boy – inside. The aim was to reach 24 weeks so he’d have a chance at survival.
We didn’t get that far. Suddenly I was bleeding again and the gynae said I was dilated and had to deliver. Dave couldn’t be with me. When the baby was born, he was blue but when he was put in my arms and the gynae asked what his name was, he seemed to self-revive.
Connor, that was his name. With Dave on video call, we spent a few hours with him, waiting for him to die.
I eventually drifted off to sleep and when I woke, Connor was dead and I had an oxygen mask on my face. I was told my vital signs had dropped and I was being taken to ICU.
This is when Covid truly took hold. I couldn't cry because I couldn't breathe and I had to make the conscious decision to put my grief on hold and mourn if I made it out the other side.
I very nearly didn't.
My vital signs dropped further and I was intubated and put on a ventilator. I was put into a coma and in the months that followed I nearly died many times. I had multiple procedures, went into multiple organ failure and got klebsiella, a very serious infection – one of the worst superbugs there are. I was septic and right at the edge of death.
Eventually, against all odds, I woke up and saw David's loving face looking down at me. I was told almost three months had passed and I couldn’t believe it. Then I realised I couldn’t move my body and my voice was gone.
When someone is in a coma or critically ill for a significant amount of time, they can develop critical illness polyneuropathy – a peripheral nerve disease that leaves the patient limp or temporarily quadriplegic except for some cranial nerves.
My voice was gone because of the tracheostomy – the air comes out of the hole in your neck instead of through your voice box.
It took about 10 days to get me a device that allowed me to talk. Even after I received the device, I could manage only two words with each breath.
With the help of experts, I had to learn how to do everything again: move my fingers, swallow, feed myself, brush my teeth, move my legs.
I was unbelievably lucky. I had world class treatment at Kingsbury and the doctors, nurses and physios, as well as so many others, went above and beyond and I am forever indebted to them.
After 79 days in ICU, they gave me the honour of clapping me out. I was put in an ambulance and taken to the Vincent Pallotti rehabilitation centre. It was the first time I’d seen the sky in three months.
It was also the moment I realised my mom had only days left. She’d managed to
fight through my battle for life, but finally, after the strongest battle many will ever see, cancer began to win.
The rehab centre allowed me out to say goodbye to her. My family placed me on the bed next to my mother and left us both, mostly unable to move, to say our final farewell.
This was harder than anything I’d been through. Looking into her eyes and knowing I would never see them again was a physical pain.
I returned to rehab where I learnt to sit up, open cans, even stand with a frame.
Somehow, my mother managed to last a little longer. Finally, my dad came to tell me she was at the end. She would die that day.
I was taken back to her bedside, where the whole family gathered. The last thing I said to her was, ‘We’ll be okay now, Mom. You can go’. Ten minutes later, she died.
Since then, I’ve been fighting for a semblance of normal life. I’m getting there but the progress is slow and I have real challenges ahead. I’m home now with Dave and our beloved dog, Toby, but walking is hard and I have brain fog that makes it impossible for now to return to my job as a manager in a medical practice.
I hope that someone might learn from what I went through. If you lose a baby, share it and allow others to comfort you. Talking about it will also break the stigma still associated with miscarriage.
Cherish your mom – she’s the only one you’ve got. And if she’s anything like mine, she’s a very special human being.
And lastly, don’t think Covid won’t happen to you. This thing wants us all. Wear your mask. Keep your distance. Get your jab when you can. Don’t think ‘it’s just a virus’. It isn’t. Trust me. You don’t want this.”