As I alighted from the ambulance at Mulago national specialized hospital, I was met by a man in a full hazmat suit, with a spray pump in one hand and a nozzle in the other.
Slowly backing off, he instructed me to “stop and raise your hands. Close your eyes and put your phone in the pocket.”
Before I could finish implementing his instructions, he was spraying me like a cockroach! When my frontal area was fully soaked in this liquid that smelt of Jik, he rudely instructed me to turn around.
“Raise your feet,” he instructed. I duly did, one at a time. It is at this point that reality dawned on me; I had entered prisoner mode.
Three hours earlier, I had walked myself into Lancet laboratories in Wandegeya to pick my results for a Covid-19 test done two days earlier after grappling some strange symptoms. The test cost me Shs 345,000. Two hours later, here I was being checked in at Mulago hospital, having been found positive with coronavirus!
After disinfecting me, the man directed me to a corridor towards the reception. He followed me, spraying every spot my feet left. At the reception, an aging nurse welcomed me, recorded my particulars and offered the much-needed counseling.
“Don’t worry young man, we will take good care of you and you will be out of here before you know it,” she said.
At this point, three more patients joined me and were taken through similar procedures before we were shown to the ward.
Once I got inside, even the little courage I had gathered began to fade. We were welcomed by multiple gazes from those admitted before us; some waved, while others were too stressed to offer any hospitality.
I walked towards the end of the ward where there was a free bed. I sat on it, since I had nothing on me. I had not expected a positive result, because I had reasoned, why would they call me to pick results if they were positive? Wouldn’t the ministry of Health be picking me up from home if my results were positive?
Moments later, a nurse walked in distributing a pair of bed sheets, a yellow blanket and two small pieces of soap (bathroom and laundry). For about an hour, I lay on the hospital bed feeling sick and trying to process everything. I had just left my wife puzzled and sobbing at Lancet as the ambulance whisked me away.
A caretaker came in to announce lunch was ready (it was 4pm!) We rushed like hungry dogs into the corridor that separates three wards, where food was being served. There was no social distancing here, as patients (male and female) scrambled for rice and beans like school children.
I waited on the wings, because I was feeling really ill. I picked my share last and strolled back to my bed. There was a dispenser in the corridor, which served all three wards on our floor. Unfortunately, there was no disinfection point or sanitizer in the entire ward.
‘THERE’S NO COVID’
After eating, patients got the energy to start conversations. One man in his early 60s talked of how he voluntarily came to Mulago seven days earlier for a test only to be hospitalized when results came out.
“I don’t feel any symptom! They didn’t even show me my results. They just brought me here. I don’t believe I have Covid-19,” he said, holding onto his huge rosary.
For the 12 days I spent with him in the ward, this man kept insisting there was no Covid-19, but rather a government ploy to feed an insatiable appetite for money. I told this old man that while I partly believed his theory of swindling taxpayers’ money, Covid-19 was real. I reasoned that Covid-19 patients are predominantly asymptomatic, which creates doubt.
But some, like myself, get symptoms. I told him of my headache and strange flu. I showed him my red shot eyes. I told him how I had spent a week with back pain and no sense of smell or taste. I told him I had gone to hospital, checked other illnesses and all came out negative until I did a Covid test.
He was unconvinced: “There is no Covid!”
I wondered why he checked voluntarily, if he did not believe its existence. Some on the ward were truck drivers, military officers from Entebbe airport, there was a police officer, and travellers, while majority of us were community alerts.
One young man could not believe his bad luck. He was scheduled to travel out of the country and went for a Covid-19 test at both Makerere University and Mulago on the same day. The Makerere results came a day earlier since he had paid Shs 100,000 and he was positive. He was admitted to Mulago, but was left dumbfounded when the Mulago results came back negative. He could, however, not be discharged since he had been exposed to patients!
Meanwhile, more patients kept coming in and by 9pm, our 14-bed area was full. The last man to check in went around greeting everyone, giving his testimony of how he had been severely attacked by Coronavirus and that it was by grace of God he was still alive.
This man’s arrival changed the entire atmosphere in the ward: he talked non-stop about everything from his children to politics and the word of God. At least he insisted Covid-19 is real, having experienced similar symptoms as me. Actually, the two of us were the only symptomatic patients in our 14-bed cubicle!
Supper was served at 8pm – rice and beef and a 250ml milk pack. I don’t eat beef; I was told to “just eat the food”. At about 9pm, I received a phone call from a doctor, asking for details of my file. He asked about my parents, siblings, marital status, allergies, chronic diseases, how I was feeling, etc. I was never asked about my contacts.
The doctor promised to prescribe some medicine for me that would be delivered at 11am the following day. I protested and told him I needed medicine immediately because I had a headache and stomach pain. He said he could not help because the pharmacy was closed.
With luck, my wife had been allowed to deliver some non-food supplies at around 10pm that night, including some of the medicine I was using before admission.
The hospital complex having been newly refurbished, the facilities were good, but the dust on the walls and floors was a clear indication that there were no cleaning services in place. There were two bathrooms and one toilet for the ward. At 11pm, I said a prayer, asking God to keep me strong, keep me safe from re-infection, and to get out of this place at the earliest time possible.
I then tucked into my little bed, and covered myself with that yellow blanket. At about 4am, we were woken up by a nurse who had come to check everyone’s blood pressure, oxygen levels and temperature. The two of us in pain asked for medicine and she said that was not her role. We slept until about 8am, when a doctor came in asking everyone how they were feeling.
I explained my situation and he gave me the same explanation as his colleague had the previous night. But when he read my medical form, he realised I was his ‘brother’ since we were clan mates. He told me the hospital was struggling with medicine and they were not issuing any medication unless someone was exhibiting severe symptoms.
He promised to follow up my case to ensure I get some medicine for the headache, ulcers and Covid. True to his word, I was called to the entrance at about 6pm that day and received some paracetamol, Vitamic C tablets, Azithromycin, Esomeprazole and magnesium.
When other patients saw me with drugs, they were suprised since some had been there for three days and had received nothing. I told them I had acute symptoms. Earlier, some two doctors had come and paid every patient Shs 35,000 and swabbed everyone, for “research purposes” by Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI).
At the end of the second day, we were transferred to Level 4 of the hospital – we had been on level 2, which is a receiving area for new patients. This was some sort of upgrade because level 4 has a TV in each cubicle. I also got a bed with a small cabinet where I could store my property. Here, there were also more bathrooms (three) and toilets (four).
There were also two private side rooms, which we were occupied. One of the occupants was TV and Radio personality Isaac Rucibigango, whose complaint about bad food forced the ministry to allow patients receive food from relatives between 10am and 1pm.
EAT, PRAY, EAT
By the third day, I was beginning to accept my fate. I had been told the earliest I could get out of Mulago was after 12 days. I would be checked after nine days and then again two days later. If both tests came out negative, I would be discharged.
A young man said he had spent a month in the hospital. Though he was never told why, I realised that he must have had a re-infection because he had volunteered to act as a caretaker in all wards, acting as a liaison between patients and hospital administration; those who wanted something from outside would go through him; he would supervise the distribution of meals, drugs, bed sheets, etc.
In short, he had become a hospital staff and by default a permanent patient because of daily exposure. For the next 10 days, the routine was the same, wake up at about 8am, brush your teeth, converge as a team to pray. Thereafter, the asymptomatic ones start jogging around the wards; others do aerobics, while some move to the windows to soak in the sun for Vitamin D.
Breakfast would be served at 11am, after which we would watch TV, read books, watch movies and music on laptops, while others with weaker spirits just sat in isolation, deep in thought. There was no one in a worrying condition. Even us with symptoms were getting better, with constant consumption of warm things mixed with ginger, garlic, lemon, honey and the like.
The talkative man organised us into a fellowship and every morning and evening we would all converge in our cubicle and read the scripture before he preached to us. He extended this to all wards, even the women’s ward. He tirelessly went about preaching hope, strength and God’s love. He would give testimonies of his family where none of the family members were exhibiting any symptoms as days went by. This man’s liveliness kept us going.
There was an old man, who never talked to anyone. I suspect he was from one of the border districts; he did not have a change of clothes, did not understand English, Luganda or Runyankole (the dominant languages on the ward). He just sat in isolation.
He never took a shower for the 11 days I saw him and the ‘aroma’ coming off him soon became a concern for everyone. Then there was a young man of Indian descent. He came a day after me, crying that he wanted to go back to India because he was scheduled to marry his fiancée that week. He first refused to eat or talk to anyone, but soon he got used and became a nuisance.
Out of the blue he would shout on top of his voice, as if calling out a name. He did this every day. Then there was the snoring contest! If you happened to wake up in the middle of the night, you would hear a choir of snores in different tones, pace and sound. It seems Covid affects one’s breathing, thus accelerating their likelihood of snoring. Almost everyone above 40 years was snoring!
At the start of the second week, they brought more people in our wards. Two more beds were fixed in each of the cubicles designed to accommodate six beds. We were aware that new confirmed cases in Kampala were rising faster than expected. One of the new people brought to our ward was a white man, born in Uganda, and transferred from Entebbe grade B hospital.
He told us Entebbe was overwhelmed by the numbers to the extent that patients were now sleeping in corridors.
“You people are receiving first class treatment. At Entebbe no one is getting any medicine. I had to first make noise to get some paracetamol and two tablets of azithromycin. The food is bad; The sanitation is terrible and water is unreliable,” he said, settling into our ‘first world’.
Because of his continued complaints, this white man, along with five others who work with him at an NGO in northern Uganda, were transferred to Mulago.
“I feel guilty. When I made noise, I expected them to change the situation; instead, they just transferred me and my workers and the status quo remains at Entebbe,” he added.
At this time, the medicine supply at Mulago had improved and every patient who wanted Vitamin C or Azithromycin tablets got them without a hustle.
FREEDOM AT LAST
On the tenth day in Mulago – the 12th since my first test – a doctor came and took a sample from me and others. We were told the policy had changed; if the first test is negative, one is discharged immediately. On the same day, some of the people who had been tested earlier were discharged.
Seeing a ‘colleague’ get discharged takes a toll on you. One of those discharged was the talkative pastor and indeed I felt lonely for the first time since admission. The following day everyone I had been admitted with was discharged! This was because they had had their initial test earlier than me. Because I used private means to test, I had received results sooner and had been immediately admitted, but the majority had spent more days waiting for results before admission.
So, there I was, amid new faces. I started feeling anxious and lonely. But two days later I received a call telling me my test result was negative. I was told to pack my stuff and go to the entrance for my discharge form. I have never been to prison, but the feeling I got exiting that door to the ward felt like I was leaving prison.
Look at it this way; there are two gun-wielding men stationed across this door with instruction to stop any patient leaving through that door without permission. The entire block is surrounded by military personnel, ready to pounce on anyone trying to escape.
When I stepped out of the door, the same man who had welcomed me two weeks earlier was on standby to spray me again. He asked me to remove all my belongings to be sprayed, lest I take Covid to my home!
After the spraying and receiving my discharge form, I sloped down the stairs, past people with suitcases and bags probably coming to occupy the bed I had just vacated, to start their sentence!
I pulled out my phone to take a selfie next to the facility. I was going home.
• Beds and washrooms are still new and in good condition
• Some doctors are hospitable and exhibit a sense of care.
• The wards are cleaned only once a week.
• The food is monotonous – Rice and Matooke served with beans or beef. The brown porridge, from number 3 flour – it tastes good though.
• There is disorganization; patients get medicine only after they make noise.
• The nurses make rounds every morning but only attend to the 50-plus in age; those that make noise are told to shut up because 'there is nothing to check'!
• There is no clear order; new patients are mixed with old patients.
• When numbers increased, men were mixed with women in wards.
• Bed sheets are changed once a week; they were reduced from two bed sheets to one, as numbers swelled.
• There is a lot of garbage because of use of disposable material but it is rarely collected, thus lying in heaps in the wards.
• The washrooms are never cleaned, unless the patients clean them by themselves. But there is no liquid soap or scrubbing brush to help.