Covid-19 survivors tell of living with PTSD, anxiety and fear

Covid-19 patients who had severe cases of infection speak of the after effects of the trauma of fighting for their lives in ICU.

Contracting and surviving Covid-19 not only leaves patients with post-infection symptoms but also post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the fear of going outside and anxiety attacks for survivors who thought they would never make it out alive.

The emotional impact of lying in an intensive care unit surrounded by machines while struggling to breath and thinking about loved ones left at home is something some Covid-19 patients still had to deal with.

Phatisa Ntlonze, who spent two weeks in an ICU ward during the second wave, said the recent wave of Covid-19 deaths triggered anxiety attacks, headaches and sleepless nights.

Ntlonze was forced to leave her 14-year-old son with people she barely knew while she dealt with severe shortness of breath and diabetes at a hospital in Cape Town.

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Not only was she in pain and struggling to breath but due to not finding visible veins to insert a drip or draw blood, she said doctors opted to open a hole in her chest while she remained awake.

“I literally cried but there was nothing anyone could do. They then started monitoring me all of the time because I am also a Type 2 diabetic – which is an issue. The medication for the Covid-19 was too strong and my diabetes level would then get too high. It was a balancing act for the doctor because if diabetes goes up, I could get cardiac arrest and die.

“That week was traumatic. My son was with people I didn’t really know. His friend’s parents offered to take him in and made sure he went to school and fed him. I video called him often because I needed to be reminded there was someone I am fighting for.”

But it didn’t end there for her. Ntlonze said the experience left her crying herself to sleep each night for several weeks after being discharged from hospital and was later diagnosed with PTSD.

“I didn’t go out to the shops for three months after that. I was too scared to go outside because I got the virus even though I barely went anywhere.”

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For Corné van Zyl, she experienced her first panic attack after receiving her results, also during the second wave. She is now on a light dose of antidepressants to cope with her six-day experience in ICU.

“I kept thinking: ‘What if I die in hospital? What would happen to my son and fiancé? Are all my affairs in order? My poor parents and siblings – the trauma it would bring them.’ The beeping sounds of the machines in the ICU were the only thing I could hear in the deadly [silence].

“A month or two ago I was diagnosed with PTSD and put on a light dose of antidepressants. I just did not feel like myself. I still have a foggy brain, headaches, get tired easily and my hair has been falling out. But I am doing much better,” she said.

Doctors who deal with such patients also experience major depression and anxiety, president of the South African Medical Association (SAMA) Dr Angelique Coetzee said.

“They end up with major depression and anxiety disorder due to the hopelessness of it all and also the worrying of bringing this disease back home.

“Clinical psychologists can help with this as they evaluate the patient and if they feel the patient needs medication. Clinical psychologists teach you certain behaviours and help you to do relaxation exercises.”