SINGAPORE: At one point of time, there were so many tubes and devices attached to the body of Bambang Sugeng Kajairi that he would joke with family members that he was Iron Man.
He didn’t feel quite as invincible as the Marvel superhero.
First, a high fever seemed to lay siege to his body. “I could feel the fever coming up, and they did tell me that my fever was moving up quite rapidly,’ he recalled. “I think on that night the fever was at 39.8 (degrees Celsius) and I was at 39.8 for several nights.”
Next came strange hallucinations a couple of nights into his stay at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID).
They would come like a thief in the night. Sometimes at 11pm, sometimes at 1am. Was he awake, was he asleep? In the feverish haze, the 55-year-old Singaporean couldn’t tell.
“I started hallucinating, but I did not tell the doctors I was hallucinating until towards the period where I felt comfortable enough to tell them,” he recalled. “Because I didn’t know whether hallucinations were part of the thing that COVID-19 patients went through.”
Mr Bambang, who is a businessman, began seeing images that seemed utterly random.
There would be one where he was in a Dutch bakery and was trying to buy a percentage of the company. In another, he would be wondering why he was reporting his temperature to an accounting firm.
“That was the scary part, and I think it was the temperature that was really, really playing on my mind,” he said. “Then I saw images of people that had passed away. Those were very, very tough nights … When those images came up, it got me seriously worried.
“Finally, I managed to say it … and tell the doctors.” Much to his relief, they said the hallucinations were normal.
Then came energy-sapping pneumonia. And Mr Bambang had to be given 4 litres of oxygen through a nasal cannula to help support his breathing.
“I won’t lie, there was one day that I broke down,” he recalled. “That was the day I thought I was at my lowest, I was thinking: ‘How come I am not getting any better, why am I getting worse and worse?’
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“Was I afraid? I think it was seven or eight days into the whole thing that I felt: ‘Wow, this is a toughie.'”
WHEN IT HIT ‘BIG TIME’
This had all started just a few days earlier in mid-March.
Mr Bambang, the director of local company Aqua Munda, had just returned from an urgent five day business trip to the UK. There, he had also been trying to make arrangements for his son who was studying there to return to Singapore due to the COVID-19 situation.
“I had to get my son back – he was scheduled for an operation on Mar 18 in London,” Mr Bambang said. “We were trying to sort out whether the operation was a necessary one to go through with (at that moment), because of what was happening in the UK.
“It turned out that on the eve of his operation, (the hospital) postponed it because it was considered non-essential.”
Hours after touching down in Singapore where he was served his Stay-Home Notice (SHN), Mr Bambang began to feel “a bit sickly”.
“I was not sure whether it was jet lag,” he explained. “At my age, travelling is a bit of a pain. But I felt feverish so I slept through and at about 2.30am, I woke up and felt a bit uncomfortable … I tried sleeping it off but next morning I woke up and I found my temperature was quite high.”
On the advice of the People’s Association, which is the organisation people on an SHN are told to initially call if they need to go out to visit a doctor, he visited the nearest clinic to his home. There, the thermometer read 39.1 degrees Celsius. A ambulance was then dispatched to take him to NCID for testing.
“That was when it hit me that I probably could have COVID-19,” he said. “It only crossed my mind at 39.1 because I’ve come back from trips very tired. But when the temperature soared that high, that got me seriously worried.”
After being tested at NCID, Mr Bambang had to return home to await his results. The next morning, he was told that he was COVID-19 positive.
“That hit me big time,” he said. “It was a bit of numbness … There were two quite contradictory thoughts. The first was: ‘Thank God I’m in Singapore, because our death rate is very low’ … But at the same time, there was a sense of not knowing what I was about to go through.”
‘MY BODY WAS TAKING A BEATING’
The turning point came about eight days into his stay at NCID.
“They approached me and said: ‘Look, your situation is not so good … Do you want to undergo a (clinical) trial test with a drug?” Mr Bambang recalled. “I had a quick thought about it and thought I had nothing to lose … That was perhaps the best decision that I made under the circumstances.
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“Physically, I was tired, I was drained. At the peak (of my situation), I couldn’t sit up for 30 minutes (or more), I would feel exhausted.”
While Mr Bambang did not know if he was actually administered the drug or a placebo due to the nature of the trial, he noticed that things finally started to take a turn for the better.
“Whatever it was, whether I was under the real drug or the placebo side, I can tell you that … my recovery after starting it was so much better.
“My body was taking a beating,” he said. “I think psychologically I was in a bad place because I was not sure what was happening to me.”
To Mr Bambang’s delight, his temperature readings started to gradually dip.
“My temperatures started dropping – 38.7, 38.5 and then the breakthrough was the day they said it was 37.9,” he explained. “I was very happy even though they said I was still feverish. Then it started going down to 37.5, 37.3 and I knew by that time I had won the battle.”
But Mr Bambang attributes his recovery to more than just the clinical trial. It was also the constant encouragement of the doctors and nurses were vital in helping him pull through.
“The doctors were saying: ‘Come on, you can do it! You’ve (already) come so far!’ They were very reassuring and they said that it was important that they got me mentally strong as well,” he said.
“The doctors kept reassuring me, they kept telling me not to worry – they would help me to pull through. They told me I had to go through this whole process. I had to go through the lowest point and then slowly things would start picking up.”
It wasn’t just the medical staff that Mr Bambang is effusive in his praise of.
“It’s not just the doctors and the nurses, but the cleaners as well … And they do this every day and they help so many of us,” he said. “These guys are just brilliant and they would do it with a smile!” he said.
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There was also the moral support of family and friends that kept him going.
“They were very active on the chat groups, keeping me motivated,” Mr Bambang recalled. “And then my schoolmates from my days in SJI (St Joseph’s Institution) and from CJC (Catholic Junior College) … we all grouped back together, two of us were in hospital for the same thing … and so the group just started coming together. No matter what religion we were, we were all praying for each other.
“That massive support helped me to pull through. When you feel a lot of people pulling in for you, cheering you up, cheering you on. That makes a world of difference. “
After being discharged after 16 days in the hospital, Mr Bambang believes that it is his duty to also speak up about what he went through.
“The message needs to keep coming out, especially from those that have been through it that this is no joke,” he explained. “You guys got to be careful for your own safety and for your family.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve been through in my life … This one took a lot out of me.”