On January 29, 2020, Liu Yujia, a 73-year-old grandma visiting from China, was the first in a family of four to have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the UAE. The picture shows her with Consul General of China Li Xuhang and Dr Hussein Al Rand, Assistant Under-Secretary at the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention, after she recovered. Image Credit: WAM

Dubai: Much water has flown under the bridge since the UAE recorded the first COVID-19 positive case of a Chinese grandmother and her family on holiday here on January 29 last year.

A year down the line, as many UAE residents, who were among the earliest cases locally, look back, they say the learning curve was sharp. Speaking to Gulf News, they shared their experience in the hope that the lessons they learnt would hold others in good stead too.

‘I suffered from COVID-19 twice’

Jana Uchrinova

Jana Uchrinova, 30, from Slovakia, caught COVID-19 not once, but twice to her dismay. Working with a popular jewellery retailer, Uchrinova, told Gulf News: “I recall it was March 18 and I had this very high fever and body ache, so I got my test done. Once the results were positive, I was admitted to Medcare Hospital, Al Safa. I was discharged 10 days later after the three negative tests.”

However, within three days of quarantine at home, Uchrinova developed high fever again and this time she did not take any chances. The hospital sent her to isolation in a hotel ward where she remained until the third week of April. “When I tested positive the second time for COVID-19, I was scared and worried about my life. I was in between jobs and without insurance. However, I am grateful to the authorities for my care. I would like to tell people to observe all protocols to avoid getting COVID-19. If people are diligent, they can avoid COVID-19 and also prevent its spread.”

Uchrinova’s said her body has developed a high level of antibodies and so she was not going in for the vaccination now. “I had gone to Slovakia this Christmas to visit my family and every single member had COVID-19. Despite being so close to them, I did not get it thankfully.”

‘I tested negative 7 times but ...’

Anu Mohanan, 40, an Indian expatriate from Sharjah, had the most curious case. Then 39, Mohanan, an accountant by profession who had no co-morbidities, was admitted to NMC Specialty Hospital, Dubai on April 1. He had contracted the virus from his wife who was a nurse and tested positive along with their daughter. However, while the wife and daughter had a mild case and recovered in 14 days, Mohanan kept testing negative although his symptoms were progressively deteriorating. He said he tested negative seven times. But doctors had already begun treating him for COVID-19, and the diagnosis was confirmed during the eighth PCR test. “Before the positive report came in, I had already been moved to the ICU as my condition was quite bad. I remained on the ventilator for nearly 45 days,” recounted Mohanan who was in hospital until June 6.

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Anu Mohanan with wife Smitha and daughter Avhni.

Mohanan feels the illness has humbled him and led him to appreciate the importance of family and relationships. “I want to tell people not to take life for granted. For nearly a month after I came home, I was so weak that I could not walk two steps without help. My muscle tone had been destroyed having been in bed for so long. I slowly built my strength through protein-rich diet, multi-vitamins and regular walk regime. Even today, I feel breathless when climbing stairs,” said Mohanan who also feels he has far more respect for the frontline workers now. “My wife is a nurse and after my own battle with COVID, I can only salute the front line workers for their selfless dedication to their job. I also caution people to observe all protocols when in public. “The worst might be over, but we have to be extra cautious, wear our masks, observe social distancing and wash our hands. I have taken my first dose of vaccination, as I am as vulnerable as anyone else is. The immunity from having the illness again lasts only three months. My wife and I have completed our first dose and we will get our second dose soon. Together, with conviction and courage, we can fight this.”

‘Don’t be afraid of COVID-19 but take care’

The plight of front line workers who caught the deadly virus in the line of duty was especially poignant.

Rajesh Philip Kantayen, 48, chest X-ray technician at Prime Diagnostic, contracted COVID-19 during the process of screening the lungs of numerous patients. Kantayen recalled, “I was busy throughout March as chest X-rays were an important part of the diagnosis and I was taking full precaution, wearing the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), but on April 1, I tested positive. My oxygen saturation was low and my own X-ray showed multiple pneumonia patches.” Luckily for Kantayen, high level of care at Prime Hospital even before his test reports came in, ensured he recovered within 12 days.

Rajesh Philip Kantayen

Overcome the fear

Kantayen, who was back to work after a 14–day quarantine period post discharge, told Gulf News: “I want to tell people not to be afraid of COVID-19. The doctors and nurses have a food treatment schedule. One needs to avoid infection at all cost by following government protocols and if one still gets it despite the precautions, the health care professionals have a very effective treatment plan. Everyone must try and minimise infection by taking the vaccination,” said Kantayen who has taken his first dose and will have the second dose administered in the scheduled 21-day period.

‘I have not seen my newborn daughter yet’

Sajan Varghese

Another front line worker to have contracted COVID-19 on April 1, 2020 was Sajan Varghese, 38, a male nurse from the COVID-19 ward at the Medeor Hospital, Dubai. Verghese who has been in Dubai for 12 years and is a trained Intensive Care nurse. Varghese tested positive despite all precautions he took handling patients, but he was fortunate to have a mild case. “I was in the isolation ward for 12 days, a very tough period where one gets to meet no one. it was emotionally very tough for me, “ said Varghese who became a father in that period but still hasn’t seen his daughter,

Hanna Elizabeth, as he is yet to go home to Kerala for holidays. “My wife, Sharon Sebastian, who is a nurse in Dubai too, delivered and was in Kerala for six months. However, she had to return to work, leaving the baby in the care of the grandparents. I am able to manage my emotions but her eyes moisten up often. I have only seen my child grow on video chats. She is nearly one year old now,” said Varghese.

He feels the pandemic has taught some important lessons to all. “The current pandemic situation has taught us to get rid of the fear and face the challenge head on. We are all in this together and the community needs to fight this together responsibly, we need to be positive and strong and that makes a difference in this battle, we must follow the protocols and practice these if we intend to have a complete health restored soon. Last but not the least, it is very important that all of us get the vaccination so that we can all collectively defeat COVID-19.”

‘I owe my life to the dedicated doctors, nurses’

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Medcare Hospital in Sharjah, one of the hospitals in UAE where COVID patients were treated. Image Credit: Supplied

Rafat Sohail, Indian expatriate, 49, came down with COVID-19 on March 29. He was rushed to Aster Hospital, Mankhool, feeling breathless and was diagnosed with pneumonia initially. He told Gulf News, “At that stage not much was known to me about the nature of COVID-19 and I was apprehensive. However, the doctor who was attending to me assured me I would be fine. I was fortunate to reach hospital on time and be plugged to the ventilator for close to 30 days. I have a very faint memory of what was going on then. The doctors were thrilled to be able to save me. I understood the full gravity of what I had been through only when going through the family chat that had been taking place about my situation. It appeared the doctors had only given me a 10 per cent chance of survival. By God’s grace and the dedication of the hospital team, I survived this ordeal,” said Sohail who was weaned off ventilator on April 25 and spent another two weeks in the hospital before being discharged.

Rafat Sohail with his mother Image Credit: Supplied

Sohail, who feels blessed to survive, advised people to take the pandemic seriously and get vaccinated. “I am thankful to all the nurses and doctors without whom I would not have survived. COVID-19 is challenging disease, but with the right attitude and treatment one can survive it. We must not fear it, but be positive about it,” said Sohail who is going for his first dose of vaccination in the first week of February.

‘My faith in humanity was restored’

Evelyn Alay Quidlat

Evelyn Alay Quidlat, 58, a former human resources professional with an oil-and-gas company from Jebel Ali, was admitted to the COVID-19 ward of the Medcare Hospital, Sharjah, from April 13 to May 13, of which nearly ten days were spent in the Intensive Care Unit. A widow who has fought against many odds, Quidlat who is pre-diabetic and suffers hypertension, survived her ordeal and credited her success to the dedication of the doctors and nurses. “It was a very difficult journey for me and I would have given up had it not been for the hospital staff. My doctors told me they were not giving up on me; I can never forget the nurses’ gestures - they would even comb my hair,” she recalled.

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“They boosted my morale and gave me the confidence that I could make it. I found love and care from strangers and it restored my faith in humanity. I am grateful to be alive and thankful to be able to be reunited with my family.”