Hein Kaiser
Journalist
3 minute read
13 Nov 2021
6:45 am

‘Like being waterboarded’ – This is what it’s like being a Covid ICU patient

Hein Kaiser

The entire severe Covid experience is torture, as Hein Kaiser found out when he volunteered for a Covid treatment experience.

A health worker collects a swab sample from a woman, for a Covid-19 test in Ultrecht, on October 8, 2021. (Photo by Sem van der Wal / ANP / AFP) / Netherlands OUT

There were two lessons I learnt this week.

What prisoners of war may have felt like in Guantanamo Bay during the Middle Eastern conflict and what it must feel like when you just cannot breathe, lying in intensive care with Covid.

I only had 15 minutes of it and it felt like hell. I can only imagine what someone with severe illness must go through when every breath becomes a gasp for life.

Chief executive officer of the Medicare 24 Group Mike van Wyk said that many patients simply give up.

“When you can’t breathe, when oxygen is forced into your lungs and every moment feels like it’s the last, it can be soul destroying,” he said.

The final countdown isn’t just due to the virus, he said, it has a lot to do with giving up on life.

Not only is treatment taxing, the entire severe Covid experience is torture. To understand what people go through in severe Covid, I asked Van Wyk to assist in finding patients willing to share their experiences.

Previously, I interviewed a nurse who almost died from it and it was an emotional discussion filled with sadness.

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But Van Wyk suggested going one better. I should experience, first hand, what the virus can make you feel. An interview became a simulated intensive care unit for a temporary taste of naked fear.

First he called for a condom. He inflated it and started pouring a jug of water into the protective balloon.

While he was filling it up, he said that this is exactly what Covid does to your lungs.

“Imagine your lungs are filled with fluid and you are down to only 10% lung capacity.”

He pointed to the small air bubble at the upside-down base of the condom. “Then the fluid crystallises and breathing becomes harder and harder. Not too dissimilar from decade-long smoker’s lungs,” he said.

Seeing a visual representation of the scale of the problem was enough to make me afraid of this virus all over again.

Thank goodness I was vaccinated, I thought. Van Wyk then hauled out an oxygen tank and affixed a breathing mask to my face. He turned on the oxygen. But then he hauled out a surprise.

A quadruple-folded paper towel soaked with water. My mouth and nose were covered with this. It was near impossible to breathe. This is waterboarding, and it causes instant panic.

“Can you feel how hard it is to breathe?” asked Van Wyk, placing the oxygen mask over my nose and mouth again, this time on top of the wet mask, and blasting me with a giant oxygen spurt.

“This is the volume of oxygen they need to pump into patients just to get some air into their lungs,” he said.

It hardly felt as if I was getting any more air than before. “This is why in many instances they have to tie seriously ill Covid patients down. They could kill themselves by simply acting on instinct and removing the very apparatus keeping them alive.”

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Unpleasant thoughts raced through my mind, what the nurse told me about how she asked God to take her.

“Lift up your shirt,” came the next instruction. Van Wyk hauled out a syringe and needle. It hurt. Very ill patients are injected three times daily, in their abdomen, with blood thinning medication.

“And that’s only the beginning,” Van Wyk added.

“There’s after-Covid. The memory loss, the middle-ear infections, permanent loss of taste or previously pleasant smells now smelling vile.

“There’s the heart muscle infections. Science keeps discovering new after-effects.”

And you don’t want to get vaccinated? Try being waterboarded. The prospect of a Covid-induced feeling like that? No thanks.

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