It was like a storm at sea: in the beginning, a dark gathering of clouds at a corner of the horizon; then a gradual spread of dreary blackness over the firmament; with more heft, there follows an inky lowering of the sky; then, with a whirlwind, cascading gusts of rain overwhelm the craft. When the virus SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19 started spreading its tentacles in India in late January, it scarcely caused hand-wringing alarm, though it was noted with dire misgiving. A month-and-a-half later, as the virus bit into north Italy, Spain, the UK and then the US—with ghastly, accompanying images of victims’ bodies piling up in hospital mortuaries and nightly truckloads carrying them away—it communicated some of that panic and paranoia to Indians.
Mortality rates appeared to be a sinister ogre; so did the threat to senior citizens and those with pre-existing ailments, or comorbidities. Covid’s stealthy approach into India and its patient march over our vast country was marked by its resistance to being pinned down or essentialised by doctors and researchers: indeed, randomness of behaviour—amongst patients in a room, or between entire countries and continents—is its one hallmark. However, over five months through the pandemic, even as India has been clocking the world’s highest rate of infections, COVID-19 appears to be exponentially more infectious than it is fatal. Further, if one combats it early, with a spirited stomach for a fight and the right medical approach, no matter how complex one’s health conditions are, Covid will concede defeat.
Amidst the gloom, tales of miraculous turnarounds, especially of persons of advanced age—rarely without illnesses and thus at greatest possible risk—spread hope and not a little cheer. Their return to wellness is testament to the indomitable human spirit that has shone in every crisis, and there can be no bigger global crisis than this. It’s in this spirit that we take the names of 110-year-old Hamidhabi of Tamil Nadu and of Asma Beevi, 105, of Kerala—both of whom won’t give up. Or WWII survivor Tony Vaccaro, 97, an American who survived Bloody Omaha on D-Day and has now survived Covid, and fellow WWII veteran Cermando Piveta, 99, from Brazil. We also send a hearty ‘hola’ to Maria Branyas (113) in Spain and a mushy ‘privet’ to Pelageya Poyarkova (100) in Moscow. They give us reason to stay in the ring.
We bring here stories of Covid survivors who had little hopes of recovery, battered as they were by pre-existing ailments. But, against odds large and small, they survived to share their struggle.
Harsh Garg 22
“I fought against Covid with zero immunity level”
In May, when the country, under strict lockdown, was hunkering down for a battle with COVID-19, 22-year-old Harsh, a resident of Narnaul in Haryana, realised that he had developed idiopathic aplastic anaemia, a disease in which the patient’s bone marrow stops producing new blood cells. Its causes are still under research, though multiple factors are thought to be involved. A life-threatening disease, it needs emergency treatment. “A patient who needs a bone marrow transplant requires a donor with matching HLA (Human leukocyte antigen). I was fortunate that my HLA matched those of my brother and sister,” Garg, an engineering student, says.
“After the transplant, a patient needs at least 14 days for new cells to grow and at this stage his immunity level is almost zero. Garg’s platelets and white blood cell (WBCs) counts were supposed to increase from June 30 onwards (he was operated on June 18) but he had fever on June 28 and his Covid test came positive,” says Dr Rahul Bhargava, director, department of clinical haematology and bone marrow transplant at Fortis, Gurgaon. Garg was shifted to the ICU and went on oxygen support.
Bhargava transfused platelets, administered blood thinner; Garg was given Remdesivir for ten days from June 28 to July 8. “We saw his WBC counts increase on July 3, two days later his platelet counts went up. On July 8, his CT scan showed improvement and his oxygen level recovered but he remained Covid positive,” says Bhargava. On July 17, though he again tested positive, doctors found Garg was developing antibodies, and he was sent for home isolation. On July 24, he tested negative.
“It was traumatic but I am thankful to my friends, relatives and family members for keeping my morale high. I especially thank my doctor, who never let me feel that I was going through such a critical stage,” Garg says.
Hemkanta Mahanta 86
‘Belief in god is behind my will-power’
As serenely content as ever, Hemkanta Mahanta recites the ‘naam prasanga’ while taking a walk in the neighbourhood. The 86-year-old resident of Guwahati has overcome the stiff challenge of COVID-19 after spending 12 days in the ICU of Mahendra Mohan Choudhury Hospital (MMCH) in the Assam capital.
“When I left the hospital on July 28 after testing negative, I was in tears as I bid adieu to the doctors and nurses who took care of me,” Mahanta tells Outlook with a smile. A retired employee of Brahmaputra Valley Fertiliser Corporation Limited, he developed multiple health problems—from diabetes to asthma—over the last several years. When he was admitted to the hospital after testing positive on July 17, he was worried, but things gradually improved from the beginning.
“They (health workers) were like angels sent by god. They were so nice to me. It was a wonderful atmosphere. I believe you got to love and respect everyone, every creature around you. That has been my motto. It is thus that I got so much love and care from doctors and nurses. Very soon, I grew attached to them. That’s the reason I got emotional at the end,” adds Mahanta.
Ever the optimist, Mahanta says he was confident of getting back soon. “I’m a god-fearing man and my belief in god is behind my will-power and energy,” he reckons. “I was suffering from asthma…maybe it started during my tenure at the BVFCL, where I was surrounded by chemicals. It was detected much later. I was found to be a diabetic as well. But I’m not worried. I walk everyday…it’s an old habit which keeps me fit and I recite naam every morning,” Mahanta adds. Sensing an indomitable spirit, Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma posted Mahanta’s photo on social media on July 28 as he left the hospital.
“Sri Hemkanta Mahanta, 86 year old, from Japorigog, Guwahati, COVID-positive with comorbidities, spent 12 days in ICU of MMCH. Finally, he defeated coronavirus and happily went home today after being discharged,” Himanta had written on Facebook.
One of the nurses who took care of Mahanta recalled her association with him. “Sir was soft spoken and ever smiling. He wouldn’t say anything with a loud voice. We could see the positivity in him. So everyone liked him and treated him nicely,” the nurse tells Outlook.
Tapas Biswas 45
“In ICU, I received god Jagannath’s Rath Yatra picture”
Mumbai-based finance professional Tapas Biswas, 45, suffers from hypertension. He contracted Covid in June 2020 but, unaware of it for 10 days, remained on medication for cough and normal flu. On the advice of his family doctor Subhash Dhawale, he got an X-ray and CT scan of his chest done. “Both my lungs looked badly infected; I underwent a RTPCR test and was found to be positive,” Biswas says. He was admitted to Wockhardt Hospitals in south Mumbai.
The doctor asked for his consent to inject Tocilizumab, a medicine which is beneficial for some COVID-19 patients. “It is a costly medicine and I was concerned about its severe side-effects. So I initially refused. My condition aggravated on June 23, and I was left gasping for life,” says Biswas. He agreed to take the medicine and was shifted to the ICU. “I remember begging the doctor to save me. The junior doctor called my wife and said that though I was critical, they would try their best to save me. It was the day of god Jagannath’s Rath Yatra and my wife sent me a picture on my mobile and told me to keep faith,” recalls Biswas. The thought that he wouldn’t even have proper last rites if he dies also affected Biswas deeply.
Behram Pardiwala, an internal medicine expert, says that Biswas suffered from a condition called Happy Hypoxia, which occurs due to shortage in the supply of oxygen to the brain. “It is very dangerous, for a patient feels that he is fit but he is not,” Pardiwala says, adding that he had to speak to Biswas’s family doctor, who convinced the family to administer the right medicine. “When I recovered I cried, realising how bad my condition was. Had the doctor not intervened and persuaded us, my life would have been in danger,” Biswas says. “His body also responded well to the treatment despite health complications,” adds Pardiwala.
While Biswas feels highly obliged to his doctor and friends, colleagues and relatives who prayed for him, he does sound a note of caution: “We Google everything and become experts. I have now learnt that this is a dangerousexercise. We should trust our doctors. Covid should not be taken lightly. Take precautions…your mental strength and positive attitude is required to fight it. Remember that tough times don’t last, but tough people do,” Biswas says. He has earned his wisdom the hard way.
Sanjay Ghosh 52
‘I was hovering on the fringes of death’
Sanjay Ghosh, who works in the publication division of the I&B ministry, credits his successful battle with corona solely to the team of doctors at the Rajiv Gandhi Government Hospital in Chennai. “I am diabetic, have hypertension and have been taking anti-depressants for the past five years. These comorbidities made me vulnerable; I was hovering on the fringes of death.” In mid-May Sanjay started having fever after a short stint at the newsroom of Doordarshan, Chennai. He got admitted to the government Covid hospital opposite the Hindu office on May 26. His admission process got delayed as the Covid reporting system had marked down his name and phone number incorrectly.
At the hospital, since there were no specialists like pulmonologists to treat his deteriorating lungs, he was shifted to the RGGH on May 31 and was admitted in the ICU, where he spent 18 days. There, the doctors first gave him insulin to bring down the high sugar level. Since his lungs were responding slowly they decided to try Remdisivir, which at that stage was being used on an experimental basis. “When I responded to that drug the doctors decided to speed up the recovery process by giving me Dexatone (a steroid). The combination of these two drugs worked miracles for me,” recalls Sanjay.
Fully recovered and back at his desk at Chennai’s Rajaji Bhavan, Sanjay is biding his time before a complete scan of his body, since doctors want to make sure that no other organ in his body has been affected. “I am thankful that no other family member got infected because of me,” he says gratefully.
Suman Sharma 66
“Doctor mistook Covid for typhoid”
Suman Sharma, a widow who lives in Shiv Vihar, in northeast Delhi, is a social worker as well as an LIC agent. A diabetic, she took every precaution since the start of the pandemic. But in early July, she visited a bank in her locality. Suman traces her infection to that ill-fated trip. “Within a few hours of that visit, I felt extremely tired,” Sharma says. The next day, she says, “my body ached as if someone had hit me. I got mild cough and fever as well. I consulted a doctor who initially thought I had typhoid.” One of her three married daughters took her for Covid test, which turned out to be positive. The doctors advised her home isolation. “I lost my sense of taste and then my appetite. When I developed breathlessness, I requested the government doctors to get me admitted in the hospital,” she recalls.
“When she came in, we put her on oxygen as she was losing breath, had high fever and blood sugar. She improved gradually with medication and care,” Suresh Kumar, medical director, Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital, says.
Doctors say that while many diabetic patients recovered from Covid, those with other health problems needed a critical treatment stage. Suman says she slept continuously for four days; she remembers healthcare workers waking her up for medicine and food. “Finally, I tested negative after 17 days and was ready to leave, but doctors found my blood sugar level to be abnormal. It went as high as 500 mg/dl after lunch. So they kept me for a few more days and I was discharged later,” Suman says.
Madan Mohal Goyal 60
“At one point, the doctor lost all hope”
Doctors at Fortis Hospital, Shalimar Bagh, Delhi, regards this as remarkable from a medical point of view. By the time 60-year-old Madan Mohal Goyal realised he had contracted COVID-19 in late May, he had slipped into a critical phase. That Goyal tested positive surpised his son, Dhruv, as no one in the family or in the immediate neighbourhood was infected.
“He never went out during lockdown. I guess it might have spread through plastic bags brought in carrying fruits or vegetables,” Dhruv says. “In hospital, my doctor told me that I have acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), complicated by pneumonia in both lungs,”says Goyal, adding that he was already on medication for hypertension.
“When I recovered, my doctor told me that my condition was so severe at one point he himself lost all hopes of saving me,” Goyal says. Dr Vikas Maurya, director and head, department of pulmonology and sleep disorder, who treated Goyal, points out that ARDS complicated with pneumonia is a life-threatening situation that deprives other crucial organs of oxygen. “At that time, we didn’t even have clinically proven medicines forearly recovery or fatality benefits for Covid patients. So, it was a challenging situation. But we offered whatever medication was available and he recovered,” Maurya says.
After almost a month, Goyal was discharged at the end of June. The doctor has put him under regular investigation, as his lungs still have remnants of the infection.
Kamla Devi 58
“I thank healthcare workers of LNJP hospital”
As cases of Covid piled up in Delhi in June, Kamla Devi, a resident of Najafgarh, decided to get herself tested. One who has suffered renal failure in the past, Kamla Devi has been undergoing dialysis every third or fourth day for the past five years. “My health is a concern, so I went for the test, though I didn’t have any symptom. In case I got infected, I wanted to be treated on time,” she says.
The test, unfortunately, was positive. The Delhi government’s Covid helpline came handy, an ambulance was sent and Kamla Devi was admitted at the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital. “I was accommodated in a big room with eight beds, out of which five remained vacant till I recovered,” she says. “Along with medication, I required dialysis. All the doctors were very nice. The nurses were caring. I got medication on time,” she adds, saying that though the meals were too plain for her liking, the breakfasts served were wholesome.
Dr Suresh Kumar, medical director, LNJP, says, “We have treated the maximum number of patients with comorbidities, as our hospital is well-equipped with facilities for patients of kidney failure etc. We have a 60-bed separate ward exclusively for Covid patients with renal failure.”
Kumar says that till date, over 1,500 dialysis sessions have been done, as each patient needs a minimum of four to six sessions during the full course of her stay for Covid treatment. “The dialysis sessions continue round the clock and is free of cost.”
A satisfied Kamla Devi concurs. “I get dialysis done from BLK SuperSpeciality Hospital regularly, but I preferred LNJP for treatment because I was financially not able to bear the cost for treatment in a private hospital,” she says.
Mohamad Mukhtiyar Ahmed 106
“I didn’t have any symptom, except mild cough”
Mohamad Mukhtiyar Ahmed, a resident of central Delhi who claims to be 106 years old, defeated COVID-19 bravely. Around early April, many positive cases were identified in his neighbourhood, and the health department initiated a contract tracing exercise. All of Ahmed’s family members tested positive, but none of them had symptoms. Though Ahmed, who was also Covid positive, had a mild cough, officials weren’t taking any chances with the aged person with high blood pressure. They asked him to get admitted to Delhi’s Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality Hospital.
He remained in the hospital for 17 days and was released after testing negative. “I didn’t even feel I have ever contracted the virus. I don’t remember I was given any medicine,” says Ahmed in a distracted manner befitting his age. Then he perks up. “People wrote that due to COVID-19 I was very weak but that’s not true. I remained as strong during the 17-day treatment,” he says with conviction.
In a life that is full to the brim with tragedy, Ahmed has seen many epidemics, but says none can match the pandemic’s ability to throw life out of gear. Years ago, says Ahmed, his entire family except his eldest son drowned in a devastating flood that ravaged his village in Osmanabad district in Maharashtra. He was in Mumbai at that time with his son. “I used to make background sets for movies. Soon after that, I lost my son too, who died of heart attack,” Ahmed says. The double tragedy robbed him of his equanimity—the distraught man spent many years in an asylum. After he was discharged, Ahmed somehow reached Delhi. But, in a strange city, he was reduced to begging. One day, a kind young man to whom he related his traumatic story brought him home. “I have been living with these people for the past 13 years. They are my family,” Ahmed says.
Geetanjali Saxena 62
“Coronavirus came as a boon in disguise”
When 37-year-old Siddharth Saxena returned home in Noida from Denmark on March 9, the day of Holi, little did he realise that he was a carrier of COVID-19. A few days later, his 62-year-old mother, Geetanjali Saxena, a diabetes patient, was down with high body temperature. By the time her Covid test came positive, six out of eight family members had suffered the same fate. They were admitted to two different hospitals in Noida.
“My son and I were admitted to Government Institute of Medical Sciences, the rest were isolated in the Super Speciality Paediatric Hospital and Post Graduate Teaching Institute,” Geetanjali says, venturing to add that she must have been one of the earliest COVID-19 survivors with comorbidity in the country. Not only that, everyone infected in the joint family—from her one-and-a-half-year-old grandson to her 64-year-old husband—successfully recovered. What also baffled experts were the negative test reports of two family members.
Geetanjali’s condition deteriorated within a few days of her admission to hospital and she was put on oxygen support after complaining of breathlessness. The family was worried, as reports from the US and Italy suggested that comorbidity patients carry a greater threat. “Today, we have repurposed drugs available for Covid treatment. But in March, except hydroxychloroquine, nothing was known,” Geetanjali says.
Anurag Bhargava, the then chief medical officer of Noida, says the hospital took good care, being aware that not only was Geetanjali a senior citizen, but that she had other ailments too. “Along with medicines, she was put on a hot liquid diet and by the grace of God, her condition started improving. In about 20 days, she recovered and it was a cheerful moment for us,”Bhargava says.
Geetanjali feels that more than any medicine, it is the positive attitude and inner strength of a person that matters. Her son Romil says, “We went through tough times, but today when we look back it looks like a boon in disguise, as her diabetes is completely under control.”
“The news of my mother’s recovery was covered widely in the media and one day she got a call from Bollywood actors Sonam Kapoor and Anil Kapoor, who wished her a long life. They reached us through a common friend on Instagram,” Romil says. Later, Geetanjali donated plasma for a critical Covid patient.