PHILIPSBURG–“Many times I thought I was dying,” “I just wanted to end this,” “I couldn’t take it,” were some of the thoughts running through the head of United People’s (UP) party Member of Parliament (MP) Sidharth “Cookie” Bijlani during some of his lowest moments while battling COVID-19 earlier this year.
Breaking down in tears, crying on his doctor’s shoulders, and feeling helpless were some of the emotions he felt while hospitalised for 27 days battling the dreaded virus.
Bijlani, who contracted the virus from his son, is grateful to the team of medical professionals, well-wishers and prayers of a large cross-section of the community which, coupled with his faith, helped him pull through.
When Bijlani’s son experienced COVID-19 symptoms including fever and sore throat, the MP got tested along with his son on July 21. His son tested positive, but Bijlani was negative. However, the MP said he might have lowered his guard and eventually contracted the virus, and after few days he came down with a fever, sore throat and body aches. On July 25, he learnt he was positive.
Bijlani’s symptoms were initially mild: fever, sore throat and irritation in his nostrils. This gradually increased to loss of smell and taste, headache and body aches. Within a few days he had low energy and his oxygenation was depleting.
After testing positive, Bijlani said he messaged a few doctors for advice on precautions he should take if his condition worsened. He was advised to rest, take the medications prescribed, drink warm fluids and be positive. Based on advice from a doctor he obtained an oximeter to use at home. He was told that if his reading dropped below 92 he should contact medical professionals.
On August 2 his oxygen reading was between 89 and 90. He contacted a doctor and was transported to St. Maarten Medical Center (SMMC) via ambulance. He was initially held for observation overnight and was to have returned home the following day. However, within 24 hours his oxygen dropped further and his hospitalisation had to continue. His condition deteriorated between August 3 and August 7, and his worst was between August 7 and 12.
Asked to give an indication as to what a typical day was like while hospitalised, Bijlani said, the medical professionals would check his vitals, examine him, administer breathing treatment and medication. He was also assisted with ambulation and chest physical therapy. For the majority of the day he was alone.
“In the beginning, for few days, I was practically normal and did not feel much,” he explained. “The worst was when I broke loose one day. I asked my attending doctor (Dr. Haik) to come and sit with me for a while. I asked him whether I was a vegetable now. He asked me why I was thinking like that and told me I was doing so good. This was in my third week (18th or 19th day in the hospital).
“He told me I was a role model. I told him I saw patients being admitted and within a week or 10 days they were released and I was here for 18 days and don’t know how many more,” he recalled.
“Now that was the day I cried on his shoulders and wanted to just end this. Either go to my family or ask God to call me [to be with – Ed.] Him. I couldn’t take it, but Dr. Haik didn’t give up. He made me feel positive again, bringing forth the picture of my family – my wife my kids – my mom, my sisters and my friends and family. He told me to think about them. He said they were praying for me.
“The island was praying. He had been following my FB post and said there were many people who loved me and I shouldn’t give up.”
The pep talk helped and the following morning Bijlani dropped the negative thoughts and had a positive mindset. He started listening to music again, kept his cool and injected humour in his conversations with the attending nurses and therapist, amongst other things. “Somehow, I did not give up.”
On his 21st day hospitalised, things were starting to look up and most doctors thought he would be discharged within a day or two. However, the pulmonologist, who had the final say, informed him that if he could make it breathing 10 minutes on his own without oxygen being administered to him, he would get to go home. At the time, he had been hooked up to tubes and a monitor maintaining his oxygenation at 92 to 93 and he had been receiving injections four times daily.
It did not go so well when he attempted to breathe on his own the following day. “Within five minutes my monitor showed a 79 reading and I was gasping for air,” Bijlani recalled, noting that he had gotten shivers when asked if he still wanted to go home at that stage.
While hospitalised he was on medication for anxiety, blood thinners, blood pressure and steroids for COVID-19, sore throat and diarrhoea. He also had a lot of mood swings.
“I would sometimes talk to friends and family for a minute and hang up and then some days I would talk for hours. The [ordeal] was handled very well by my wife Karishma and my friends Umesh and Sunny. I used to attend meetings of Parliament, IMA [Indian Merchants Association – Ed.] and Rotary and I also dialled random people and talked for 15 to 20 minutes, but what really helped me was Facebook.
“The moment I posted an update and the comments I received were like music to the ear. I used to literally enjoy reading each comment and then I would go on the profile [of the sender – Ed.] and check our history and recollect good old memories and visualize those moments and keep positive.”
The downsides included not being able to see his family and friends and not being able to take a proper shower. “Since I was admitted to the tent and it was not facilitated with proper drainage, it was hard to get a shower so I didn’t bathe for 28 days. I only had a sponge rub and that was also for few times (the protocol to dispose everything from a COVID patient is strictly adhered to).”
It was also tough not knowing what the future holds and being unable to have visitors.
“Many a time I thought I was dying, but I got through it. I believe I coped very well in the beginning and end. Just in between few days (critical from August 5 to August 12) were bad and I was not able to control my emotions. Otherwise it was okay.”
He is thankful that he was never on a respirator, although he was close to being placed on one. “I was breathing on my own with face mask BiPAP [bi-level positive airway pressure] and at night on CPAP [continuous positive airway pressure].
Being released from hospital after almost a month was a joy for the MP.
“Honestly, seeing sunlight after 27 days was like a rebirth. Admiring nature, which I always do, was so great. Seeing family was the best, the happy faces, the smiles were all captured in my heart forever.”
Asked what were the first things he did after he was released, he said: “Shower, shower, shower, hugged my family and admiring nature through my window.”
Recovering from COVID-19 has changed his perspective on life. In the past he spent most of his time working and dedicated less than one hour a day to himself. He now dedicates more time to himself – four to five hours exercising, meditating, listening to music and watching what he is eating. He also ensures that he gets sufficient sleep to be able to fulfil his work as an MP and other associations. Now that he has recovered he is using medication for sleep apnoea issues.
Bijlani was very open about his condition from the inception, providing updates via Facebook. “I always believe in opening up and speaking about any illness I have. It does not mean I am asking for sympathy, but I believe I am cautioning others not to get it.”
He said one of the misconceptions persons have about the virus is that they will not contract it. “It can happen to anyone,” he said adding that while many persons take the necessary precautions when out of their homes, they let their guard down when at home and this is where they can become infected.
He urged persons who live with seniors, in particular, to be very careful with their clothing and to ensure that these are removed or properly disinfected. He urged the public to take other precautions such as washing their hands with soap for at least 20 to 25 seconds, clean their mouth and take a shower when they get home.
“COVID-19 is not a death sentence. With the right medical team and expertise, you can recover as long as you present early. Talk to your doctor and educate yourself. Don’t just follow all the threads linked with COVID-19. … Monitor your oxygen levels at least thrice a day (non-COVID-19 patients too). Once those levels drop below 95, monitor it little more often and don’t let it fall below 92. If it goes below call your doctor or ambulance,” he advised.
Other advice is to “stop putting [your] fingers everywhere. Now this statement holds a great value. Once you are out of your home please don’t put your fingers on your face. Try to avoid it until you wash your hands and then do it. It’s very simple you need to stop the virus from entering through your nose or mouth – period.”
He was high in praise for the medical team, who he said had done an excellent job, listened to him and never showed anger, including Dr. Samay Nadery of SMMC and Dr. Kiarash Mirkia, a trauma surgeon from the American Advanced Medical Integration Group (AMI), and many others. “Hats off to all the medical staff.”
He also thanked everyone for their prayers and words of encouragement during this vulnerable period of his life, including his wife Karishma and his friends Umesh Chellani and Sunny Lalwani. And he thanked God for giving him a second chance.