The doctor said something about people coming down with illnesses they don’t recognize, something other than COVID-19 and I chuckled. ‘it is actually not funny,’ she said gently. I don’t know why I did that, all I know is that it all seemed so familiar- a few months ago I had listened to something similar at an eye clinic, I managed to hold myself together as I listened to the doctor explain that they couldn’t find the cause of the inflammation in my eye. He said my eye was fine even though opening it was difficult, even though I had to make a timetable for the eye drops I was given, (one should be used six times daily, another four, and the other two three times daily). And yet my eyes were fine. . ‘Something in your body is putting pressure on your eyes, we need to find the cause, or it will keep coming back.’ And that comment started a series of tests.
And I held my breath waiting for the results; I felt something leave my body when he said he found nothing. ‘How can you find nothing?’ I wanted to scream, they should at least find something in one of the tests, something that can explain the pain.
Now, again, I sit in another doctor’s office, with different symptoms and listen to the same thing. The test I was given the previous day came out clean. ‘I will give you something for the pain,’ she said. Maybe it was the way she said it, so gentle and tender that stopped me from losing my mind.
‘Have you been taking the COVID-19 precautions?’ and I explained to her that I have, and that I had also attempted to take the test. On the first attempt, they said I had come too late and they had closed. On the second attempt, they said they ran out of testing equipment. I didn’t understand why they were out of testing equipment at the beginning of the second wave of the pandemic. And my cousin who was a doctor explained that it could be because there were so many people testing themselves at that time.
And there were many people when I returned the next day. I stayed a little far from the crowd, the sitting arrangement made me uncomfortable. The people sat way too close and a man kept coughing in the back row.
I wondered what was going on in their heads. I wondered if some of them wished that the results would come out positive so they can find a name for the pain.
At least when they know what is wrong with you, the doctors can put you on their tables, cut you open and shine a touch at the problem, but when there are no answers, both you and them stumble in the dark with no idea what will pounce out of the shadows.
And eight days later, I still found myself waiting for an answer, calling back all missed calls from unknown numbers hoping that the voice at the other side had something for me but none of them did. I went back to my cousin who told me I had to go to the Ministry of Health to get my results. No one mentioned such information when I went for testing, there was no SMS or phone call to point us to that. I can’t help but think everything is this country is designed to kill you. For the past few days, my anxiety threatened to choke me, I felt like I carried a heavy weight on my back and I felt a near panic attack every time someone came too close. But people still kept coming into my space, telling me not to worry about it.
Someone said ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have it.’ And I wondered if they thought that the other people who had contracted this disease had fallen out of God’s grace. If they were declared unwanted and as some sort of cruel punishment were saddled with the disease.
Sometimes, someone would say something about how only people with underlying conditions die from it, as if I was supposed to find it comforting, or anyone deserved to die just because they are sick.
When I went to the Ministry of Health, I listened to the man in charge of tests results tell me that my test wasn’t ready yet. ‘Come back at the end of the week, but I could feel the words left unsaid, we both knew I could come back for nothing. A man at the office complained about how his results took over two weeks. He had serious symptoms when he took the test, he said.
Another lady needed it for work, ‘This is the third time I am asking for the test results.’ I couldn’t measure the frustration in her voice.
I returned home with no answers. I prayed for one to explain the painful days and nights. I begged for an answer even if it came in the form of a virus.
And on the first day of 2021, I got what I was looking for. I have spent days trying to prepare myself for the possibility of having the virus, but I didn’t expect this sinking feeling in my stomach when he told me I tested positive.
‘What next?’ I managed to ask, pushing away the faces of every single person I came in contact with, every single time I let my guard down, all the things I have touched that have also been touched by others. I couldn’t help but feel I didn’t do enough to protect my loved ones and I felt something settle in my throat.
I liked being unique, but Covid took it way too far. It seems my body made a perfect home because the virus refused to leave. My symptoms kept evolving, I was afraid to open my eyes in the morning because I didn’t know what new thing my body would do to me. Two people at my house tested positive, the people I spent the most time with. They wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t tested positive; there is no way of telling who gave it to who first. All I knew was I had a greater chance of not surviving it.
When the cough started to get worse, I called the Nigerian Center for Disease Control hotlines, the first two numbers I tried never picked and never called back. The third number picked after a few tries, he told me to wait as he consulted with a doctor. He asked if anyone had come to check up on me since I was given drugs and told to isolate at home and I let him know that no one came. He ranted about it for a few minutes before he promised to call me back. When we spoke the next day, he told me to get a cough syrup and another drug, then told me to call back in three days to tell him how it went. But I never got to do that, because on the second day my body turned against me. At first I thought it was a simple case of vomiting, maybe something I had didn’t go well with me, but it started getting worse.
On that day, I was admitted at the isolation center, the room was dirty and the bathroom even more so. It wasn’t cleaned or sterilized after the last person. I could still see their footprints leading all the way from the bathroom into the room. And because my body was exhausted from all that vomiting, I fell asleep in no time, grateful that I was, at least, smart enough to bring my own bed sheets, the only time I saw another living person was the next morning, when a lady brought me breakfast around 8:00 a.m. and passed it through the window.
I wanted to take a bath but I couldn’t bring myself to use the bath tub, everything about that room made me uncomfortable. I wondered what other diseases I could contract in that place. When the doctor finally came around 2 p.m., he said that he doesn’t think I have Covid anymore because he had calculated the days and it’s been 18 days since my first test. He suggested I should go back home and treat malaria or look for something else. After, he told a nurse to come put me on IV, and I didn’t hear from any of them again.
I was tired and frustrated, ever since I tested positive; I made it my duty to learn everything I could about the disease. I read whatever research material I could find online and I knew that the virus had no deadline for healing just like any other disease. I didn’t know how to argue with him, he didn’t seem to budge even when I told him I was still experiencing the same kind of symptoms and it keeps getting worse. And it will be a few days later that I will test positive again.
After I waited for the nurse till after 5 p.m., I struggled to get out of my room and went to the nurses’ station but there was no one there. I called my brother to pick me up and made my way home.
My second isolation center experience wasn’t as bad as the first. They had no choice but to admit me when I came back again with more symptoms and another positive result. The room wasn’t spotless clean but at least it was a bit clean, I still had to lay my own bed and wash the bathroom myself. I was glad I took my father’s advice and went along with disinfectants and detergents. I was lucky enough to have doctors check up on me the next day.
My mother and a certain friend would panic call me if I don’t pick their call, at first their panic made me laugh a bit, I couldn’t help that I fell asleep or I went into the bathroom. But one night when my body started acting up, I understood why they did that, I managed to get up and write down emergency numbers on a piece of paper and put it on the fridge close to me. I used my phone holder to keep in place. In case something happened to me, I wanted them to find numbers to easily contact, because no one asked me for an emergency contact when I came.
I was surprised that I didn’t die when I woke up the next morning, and I immediately went to the nurse’s station and requested for a doctor.
“I think the drugs are overwhelming your body,”he said when he came. He advised me to eat some more, maybe request for some fruits and drinks from home as well and that did help a bit. I was finally happy to go back home after eight days, however, on the second day of my return, a great tragedy struck my family.
The first time I experienced breathlessness, I thought that was the end; I said every single prayer that came to mind. I was rejected by the isolation center because my oxygen level was too low and they knew they couldn’t handle whatever complications it caused. I had to go to a bigger hospital, they said, and I did, but they too couldn’t take me in because of my history with Covid and because their emergency room was full —or so they said. But I know that they couldn’t just let me mingle with their patients because they stood the risk of getting infected and it didn’t help that when they contacted the isolation center to send in my medical history, the person in charge didn’t get back to them even though they kept calling them. We had no choice but to return home and use my father’s portable nebulizer, something we forgot about in a state of panic.
But that wouldn’t be the last or the worst of my attacks, one time it got so bad I had to be put on oxygen. The thing I hated most about Covid was the way it exposed me to what a rotten healthcare system we have in this country. Every time I think the system can’t get any worse, it proves me wrong. I hated the fact that I was dealing with such an illness in such a place.
It’s been months since I had last put a comb through my hair, since I last watched the strands straighten and shed on my shoulders. And every time I look at my reflection in the mirror, I feel a kind of breaking. This broken feeling moved my hand to write a long message to a friend telling them how my hair kept depressing me, how I didn’t make my hair since November the previous year, on that day I had a sauna session because a kind friend paid for me as a birthday gift after I put a spa session on my birthday wishlist that year- the first I ever made.
Even though I went almost a month late because I was sick, I came home that day feeling on top of the world. But after that day, my life seemed to have taken a different direction. A virus found a way into my body and made a home for itself. An unexpected tragic car accident claimed the life of my stepmother. My body was so weak that I couldn’t climb the stairs without going out of breath; my body couldn’t do the motions of the five daily prayers while standing. My lungs kept rejecting air and I had to walk around with an inhaler in my hands.
But still, I worried about insignificant things like my hair; I wore a cap to cover it up. I avoided looking at it in the mirror. My water spray bottle and creams sat gathering dust; the little shampoo left sat curdling at the bottom of the bottle. I had started to forget how it feels to drag and oil my hair in an attempt to tame it into submission. I never knew my hair care routine was a privilege.
My body feels like I borrowed someone else’s and it just doesn’t fit, it was taking everything I have to pin it into place. It feels like a kind of death I didn’t recognize.
It took everything I had not to break down when someone made a joke about my hair. It felt like an unexpected punch in the gut when I heard ‘it will soon become dreadlocks at this rate.’ They said it with a laugh as if they just cracked the world’s funniest joke, I couldn’t cry so I laughed awkwardly and ignored the way my heart fell down into my stomach. Apparently, a sickness that almost claimed my life is not an excuse to walk around with unkempt hair, and neither is grief. Later that evening, I called a friend and cried.
There is a kind of loneliness that comes with pain, people see you tied to a bed and still don’t think you earned the right to be there. Just a few days before that incident, someone who had been there since the beginning of my illness said my sickness wasn’t as bad as a typhoid fever they had a few months before . It felt like a stab in the heart because they said that minutes after I had an attack. They had seen how my body had declined into this weak thing and they still said it wasn’t that bad. Even though I had to connect my nose to a nebulizer in order to breathe, even when I had to run test after test trying to find out what exactly it is that that disease had done to my body. And a few months later they will make comparisons about how I even looked better than them because they have slimmed down a little even though my mother said she could count the bones on my back when she was rubbing some medicine on it.
It seems too cruel to have to fight my body while also fighting other people’s tongues. The way they told me how to feel with confidence. All the unsolicited advice, the ‘This is not Covid,’ the ‘Have you tried testing for other things like malaria?’ The ‘Covid is a farce,’ The ‘Everyone had covid; it’s not even as serious as they make it out to be.’ The ‘is it just not a cold?’ Or was it when someone told me to ignore the doctors if the results come out positive again and just try a remedy they suggested. And among all those people, only few cared to ask what hurt and how I really was feeling.
I was worried about not fasting for Ramadan that year, I knew deep down that I wouldn’t. The best option was to feed the needy and I was still advised about how I shouldn’t do that and wait till Ramadan is over and repay my fasts, because my disease wasn’t ‘chronic’ even though it has been ongoing for months and there is no guarantee of healing anytime soon.
Someone said that even kindness can be cruel and I never understood anything better. I knew that most of them were well meaning, but it was hard to come to terms with the kind of kindness that doesn’t put me into consideration. I blamed myself for being too sensitive; I thought that maybe if it didn’t have such thin skin, I wouldn’t have to suffer more pain than I have too.
I read research articles on long Covid and tried not to lose my mind. I couldn’t stop because it was comforting in a strange way to know that I am not alone. I still find it hard to get out of bed sometimes; my body would get so weak that it can’t stand on its own. My lungs still find ways to fail me and my life seems to have been put on pause. But somehow this heart still keeps beating and despite all the uncertainty,I still wake up and wonder how I made it to the next day.
I am starting to make peace with the fact that there will always be people who will give me unsolicited advice, there will always be those who will imply that my illness is just laziness manifesting, there will always be those who will advise me to exercise more or pray more and seek God’s forgiveness if I want get better and somehow my body will keep finding ways to betray me but I chose to breathe even when it gets hard, even when it takes all I have because my pain is mine and my life is mine and no one else’s and it is all I have.
Hauwa Saleh Abubakar
Hauwa Saleh Abubakar is a writer and performance poet. Her work has appeared in the “She Said So Anthology”, “The Weight of Years: An Afroanthology of Creative Nonfiction”, “Ake Review” and more. Hauwa Saleh Abubakar is also the author of “How to Practice Forgetting”, a poetry collection that explores the world through the body on Okada Books.
She considers herself an accidental lawyer and aims to make people feel ‘something’ with her works.