For over 30 years they’ve been inseparable – as husband and wife and also working as doctors at the same hospital in the Eastern Cape. And when they both fell ill with Covid, they both landed up in intensive care together, and for one of them the odds of surviving stood at just 1%.
Mohammed and Fawzia Yunus have been together since they met at Chittagong Medical College in Bangladesh as medical students and the couple, who are both 58, have lived and worked in South Africa for 26 years.
“We can’t live without each other,” Fawzia tells YOU from their home in Komani (formerly Queenstown).
When Covid hit our shores, Mohammed was especially worried about his wife as she suffers from diabetes and hypertension.
But when the pair, who work as general practitioners at Frontier Hospital, contracted the virus at the same time, it wasn’t Fawzia who ended up gravely ill but rather the fit and healthy Mohammed.
His traumatic encounter with Covid-19 began in November last year when he came home from his shift in the trauma unit with flu-like symptoms.
He had come home from a shift in the trauma unit with flu-like symptoms and from the way he was feeling he knew it wasn’t “the usual flu” so he immediately got tested. When the results came back positive, he encouraged his wife to be tested and they discovered that she too had the disease.
“I thought it was good we both had it at the same time so we could stay at home together,” Mohammed recalls.
The pair quarantined at home, but Mohammed’s condition deteriorated and he struggled to breathe. He was admitted to Life Queenstown Private Hospital with a viral infection in his lungs, and his condition continued to worsen.
A friend of the couple, Dr Mohammed Arif, suggested they fly to Cape Town for treatment at Melomed Gatesville Private Hospital, as it’s a bigger facility and would be able to offer more specialised care.
Fawzia followed this advice, arranging for a private plane to fly them there. But before they could board the plane, Mohammed, who was by then in a critical condition, had to be resuscitated and stabilised. Caught up in worry about her husband, Fawzia did not realise how ill she had become.
“I was hypoxic (lacking oxygen) and I had an intense headache. On the plane, I was very sleepy and dizzy and the paramedics told me I needed help, but I told them to concentrate on my husband,” she says.
At Melomed Gatesville, pulmonologist Dr Bilal Abdool-Gafoor, who specialises in respiratory diseases, admitted Mohammed to the intensive-care unit but he was also concerned about Fawzia who by this point had developed pneumonia.
“My husband was intubated and put on a ventilator. We were both admitted to ICU. I stayed there for four days and then I was moved to a general ward.”
Fawzia was discharged on Christmas Day and went to stay at her brother-in-law’s house, as Mohammed’s condition continued to worsen. When he had to be put on a ventilator for a second time, Fawzia was told that his chances of survival were slim.
“In the hospital, they said 99% of people who have double intubation, who are on the ventilator more than once, don’t survive,” she says.
Yet miraculously Mohammed beat those odds and is now well on his way to recovery. “My husband is a fighter! He’s a fighter,” Fawzia says. “All of a sudden, everything started falling into place – his vitals were improving and within a week all the parameters were normal again,” Fawzia says.
“It’s a miracle that I’m alive,” Mohammed adds. “I am still thanking God for how I managed to fight back.”
Fawzia spent her days at the hospital at his side. “I would read the Quran and massage him with oils and talk to him, I was there all the time.”
After coming off the ventilator he was alive but in terrible pain and unable to move his arms and legs. “I can only remember the pain, I could not move, I was completely paralysed,” Mohammed says. “I could not sleep. I don’t wish that upon anyone.”
Mohammed, a keen cyclist and swimmer, lost 20kg during his long ordeal. “When I saw his legs, I could not believe it, he was a very good athlete and he had a lot of muscle in his legs, now they were small.”
Physiotherapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy followed for Mohammed, who was admitted to Spescare Helderberg in Strand, a multidisciplinary private hospital that focuses on patient rehabilitation.
“My husband was so weak, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t raise his hands, and we were told he could take up to six months before he can stand on his own again,” Fawzia says.
So they were both ecstatic when just six weeks after starting his recovery treatment, Mohammed stood up and took his first steps. “He walked with his walking frame and everybody was excited and stunned that he made such a fast improvement,” Fawzia says.
The couple, who as doctors both subsequently received the Covid-19 vaccine, returned home in April, and Mohammed continues to slowly but steadily return to health. “He still needs to sleep on the right side but is eating well. He walks by himself, bathes himself and feeds himself, but he hasn’t gone back to work yet,” says Fawzia, who is back at work.
“I still can’t smell but other than that I am eating well to regain my weight,” Mohammed adds. “I recovered faster than when I was in the hospital, and my wife is taking care of me.”
The pair hope their story will inspire people to take Covid-19 seriously and stick to social distancing, mask-wearing and other precautions.
“People mustn’t take it lightly, it is here and you must be cautious,” Fawzia says.