I was driving to celebrate New Year’s Eve at a Japanese place in north Riyadh when I began to feel unwell. As we ate our meal, my body started aching and my nose began running. For the next few days, I had what I thought was the flu — that sensation of all one’s nerves being exposed — along with cramps and shivering. But I had my taste and smell and was not coughing, so I assumed it was not the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
A week into my self-treatment, I became dizzy while getting into the shower and collapsed onto the floor. I think I grabbed the toilet jet spray tap as I was coming down because it somehow dislodged from the wall, causing near-scalding water from the boiler to spurt over my left arm. I did not have the strength to get up, but I somehow managed to shift myself away from the gushing tap, pull myself up and turn off the water mains.
At this point I thought: “I’m 58 years old and clearly in bad shape. I’d better get a COVID-19 test.” I took off toward the huge testing installation near the King Khaled Airport road, where cars queue up at makeshift tented clinics. But when I reached that vicinity, my GPS malfunctioned for some reason, and in my diminished physical and mental state, I became disorientated. My breathing was shallow now and my body racked with pain. I pulled up at a police checkpoint. The cops took one look at me and called an ambulance.
When we arrived at the emergency ward, I was transferred to a portable bed and wheeled directly to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). An airtight ventilator mask was attached to my face and a saline drip to my wrist. Blood was taken, several shots and a variety of pills were administered, and the nasty testing swab was inserted deep within my nose — a sensation I still find unbearable even having undergone the test numerous times. I soon had the appearance of a 1940s robot, with my plastic mask and countless cables and tubes attached to my upper half.
The ventilator was panic-inducing because it seemed not to provide enough air. After a couple of hours of controlled breathing, I reached the limit of my endurance and frantically waved to the nurses through the window of my room. One of them came in and told me it was not the machine but my lungs that were incapable of drawing in more than a small amount of oxygen. I had no choice but to accept the ventilator. Thus began a long and frightening night as I focused on each new breath, attempting to inhale just enough air to survive. I lay in the darkness, the ventilator beeping annoyingly, feeling very alone and unable to move for all the electronics trailing off my arms and abdomen.
I slept intermittently, waking from time to time in a state of half-consciousness. At one point I had a minor hallucination: a large cockroach running up the wall and then disappearing in a puff of dust. Every few hours, a nurse came to extract blood.
A doctor came to see me in the morning, a friendly and reassuring Greek gentleman by the name of Thanos who told me that I had indeed tested positive for COVID-19, that both my lungs were infected with advanced pneumonia and that — minus the ventilator — my body was getting only 80 percent of its oxygen needs, meaning a genuine risk of brain damage or even fatality.
Meanwhile, my wife Anu was in Mumbai, beside herself with anxiety. Flight restrictions prevented her from immediately joining me in Riyadh and, in any case, the KSA visa office was shut down until further notice. But Anu, being a woman of considerable initiative and enterprise, was undeterred by some paltry global lockdown. She went directly to the consul general of Saudi Arabia and requested a visa on compassionate grounds. He was kind and sympathetic but told her that even he was not able to fly to his country. So Anu had to simply cope with the alarm of seeing me on Skype, masked and lying in a hospital bed with tubes and cables everywhere and a ventilator bleeping in the background.
I was physically helpless, and the Filipino and Keralan nurses looked after me as they would an infant child. “You’re all vampires!” I said to one of them, a sweet and blameless lady by the name of Nitya. “You just want my blood! There’s nothing left — you’ve taken it all.”
“Baba,” she replied, using the Hindi/Keralan term of affection, “all your veins have collapsed. There’s so little oxygen in your bloodstream. It’s not easy to find a place to extract.”
The strange thing was that, after a couple of days in the hospital, I did not actually feel very unwell. The regular cocktail of pills and injections had removed the aching and cramps, and all I experienced now was complete physical exhaustion and shallowness of breath whenever the mask was removed. I’m no fan of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but I was reminded of what he said about COVID-19 when he himself was hospitalized for it, namely, that you can be in a far more dangerous condition than your symptoms indicate. However uncomfortable the mask, I realized that it was my very lifeline because my natural breathing was simply not providing enough oxygen to sustain my existence.
Dr. Thanos, or one or another of his colleagues, appeared in my room every morning and gave me increasingly positive reports. By the fourth day, I had passed the most critical phase and was fairly quickly on the mend. Fortunately, I had no underlying conditions; any kind of existing respiratory problem could have severely complicated matters. But from the occasional anguished cry from one or another of the rooms in the ICU, it was clear that other patients were facing something far worse.
Eventually, after five days, my oxygen intake was over 90 percent — high enough for the ghastly airtight mask to be removed once and for all. This was a massive relief. I still needed oxygen from the ventilator, but it was administered via a kind of plastic bag or through a tube under my nose, both allowing me to breathe much more freely.
After 11 days in the hospital, all the cables were disconnected. I had stayed there for a total of 13 nights. On the 14th day, after lunch, a nurse came in and announced out of the blue, “Your treatment is over. You can go home now.” Having been isolated from the outside world, with my every need administered to for almost two weeks, this was a sudden shock to the system. It was something of a challenge to just get dressed, leave the safety of my room and face normal life again.
Having expressed my heartfelt thanks to the team of nurses, I proceeded slowly down the corridor toward the elevator, rather unsteady on my feet. I picked up my discharge letter and walked outside into a perfect Riyadh winter’s day — clear blue sky and cool fresh air. I got a cab and headed home, reclining in the back seat with the window down, enjoying the rush of wind on my face after all those days and nights cooped up in that hospital room.
Back at my place, I took stock of my condition. I had lost weight, and my legs were thin and withered, like an old man. My hands and forearms were bruised and pockmarked with scabs from the dozens of injections and blood extractions. My left arm still had several raw patches from the water burn. I was physically shattered, exhausted and very weak — a far cry from my usual self. Under normal circumstances, I am capable of a hard two-hour workout in the gym.
The next day, after a long, deep sleep in my own bed, free of all encumbrances, I returned to the Mouwasat Hospital for another diagnosis from Dr. Thanos. He told me several interesting things. First, I learned that I had been in the most critical five percent of all patients with COVID-19 — among whom there is a 50 percent mortality rate. “You are very fortunate to be here today,” he said. “A lot of people have not been so lucky.” He also told me that the treatment had run its full course and that I was now entirely free of the virus and would be immune to it for at least 90 days. Finally, he informed me that COVID-19 is not covered by any insurance but that the cost of treatment — over SR 120,000 ($32,000) — had been paid in full by the government of Saudi Arabia.
I do not have words express my sense of gratitude — to King Salman, to the government of Saudi Arabia, to the Saudi people. My life was literally saved by their kindness and generosity. I received world-class medical care and round-the-clock treatment from a highly professional team of doctors and nurses. If I had to get COVID-19, then I was very fortunate to contract it in Saudi Arabia, a country that looks after expatriates as well as it does its own people. That is certainly not the case for most nations of the world.
For the first few weeks since I got back home from the hospital, I had lingering physical exhaustion and needed a nap after any bout of activity, even a brief trip to the supermarket. I had a gargantuan appetite, but whatever I ate — from roast lamb to strawberries — tasted weirdly metallic and watery. In spite of all this, I felt an extremely powerful sense of mental and emotional wellbeing, which I think is a natural reaction to my brush with mortality.
I am pacing myself, getting on with my work, gradually regaining my full strength and returning to my old self.
I count my blessings and am happy to be alive.
• George Charles Darley is an Englishman who was born and raised in Turkey. After graduating in modern Middle Eastern studies from Durham University, UK, Darley embarked upon a career in media and marketing, which took him from London to Mumbai to New York. He was a pioneer of satellite radio broadcasting and later went into TV and feature film production. George is now a lecturer at the Aviation Technical College in Riyadh, while also focusing on his freelance writing and media production ventures. George’s feature journalism has been published in over 30 languages around the world.