Dubai: A blue tulip welcomed Dr Mayella Montemar as she left the hospital ward. Passing by the corridor, with her kids in tow, colleagues of various nationalities came — cheering and giving her more flowers, a warm hug or gentle embrace.
Underneath the face mask, her sweet smile had unmistakably returned. After almost five months battling COVID-19, the 40-year old Filipina resident doctor (Obstetrics & Gynaecology) at Aster Sanad Hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, had been cured. But not without a big loss. While she was in the ICU, her husband, Sheridan Chan Montemar, 40 — another medical frontliner — who also got the deadly virus, died last year, leaving her with three young kids.
The poignant story of love and loss in the time of COVID-19 was shared by Dubai-based Aster DM Healthcare, parent company of Aster Sanad Hospital, to Gulf News. It is a moving tale of survival, bravery, resilience, acts of kindness and moving on. Or as Dr Mayella herself, speaking to Gulf News exclusively put it, “Sharing inspiration and propagating love, hope and faith to oneself, others and the Almighty.”
Serve the people
Dr Mayella began the account by sharing her “passion to treat and serve the people.” She said: “As a physician, I swore a Hippocratic Oath (code of ethics pledged by physicians). It has always been my passion to treat and serve people. At the onset of the pandemic, my husband (Dan) and I — as health care workers — accepted the challenge being frontliners with all our heart. We knew we were at high risk to catch the virus, but we did not cower in fear. God’s will (Inshallah) be done, we prayed.”
She continued: “August 20, 2020 — I started to have symptoms of COVID-19. I had fever the whole night so I went to Aster Sanad Hospital Emergency Department for swabbing. The doctor advised me to do home isolation while waiting for the result. Within 24 hours, the test came positive. I had difficulty breathing aside from fever. I returned to the emergency room for reassessment and possible admission.”
“Two days later, on August 22, I was admitted in the hospital while my husband, a medical technologist at National Guard King Abdul Aziz Medical Centre, also turned out COVID-19 positive. But we had high hopes this (our sickness) will pass as the Ministry of Health, Saudi Arabia, had announced 92.5 per cent recovery from the virus. Our hospital CEO’s support and care to an employee like me was overwhelming.”
“Soon, I had high grade fever, low oxygen saturation, besides difficulty in breathing. My temperature was above 39 degrees Centigrade while Dan was just around 38. He had manageable hypertension and aside from sore throat, he was OK. He stayed at home to take care of our children — Luis Alfonzo (9 years old), Joaquin Enrique (7) and Matteo Iñigo Sheridan (5),” she added.
The kids also got the virus. Like Dan, they exhibited mild symptoms and they all stayed quarantined at home. Kabayans (compatriots) provided vital support to the family, bringing them food and medicine.
First stay at ICU
Dr Mayella said: “As for me, because of asthma, my symptoms only got worse as days passed by. Both my legs started feeling numb and weak. I was transferred to the ICU (intensive care unit) on August 29 and hooked to an oxygen apparatus at 10 LPM (litres per minute) due to difficulty in breathing.”
She said she did not inform Dan she was moved to the ICU. “Knowing Dan, he would have become more anxious,” she explained.
But on August 30 — the couple had their usual morning video chat. “Dan noticed I was in a different room,” shared Dr Mayella, adding: “I told him not to worry as doctors only wanted to observe me thoroughly.”
She said: “I could feel his pain. He felt helpless not being able to take care of me or hold me in person. Few minutes into our virtual chat, he told me: ‘Ma, I’ve been having this strong chest pain maybe because I was not able to sleep properly the past three days.’”
“Dan was a real worrier but I had him checked three days earlier, on August 27, and all panels — cardiac, laboratory tests and X-ray — were OK. I told him to immediately go to the hospital (King Abdul Aziz Medical Centre) and he did. Little did I know that it would be our last conversation.”
Wrong WhatsApp message?
“By midday of August 30, it was my turn to worry a lot. It was very unusual for my husband not to tell me where he was. I messaged him, his boss and colleagues but there was no reply,” said Dr Mayella. “At around 2.30pm, I got a message from a friend: ‘Dra, condolences po’. But my Dad died seven months back. So, I replied: ‘Thanks, but Dad passed away in January’.
“I found it really weird. I waited for other people to message me but I did not receive anything.So, I dismissed it as a wrong WhatsApp message — but at the back of my mind I started to worry.”
“That same day (Sunday) at around 8 or 9pm, two of my best friends — both kabayan doctors were outside my room. It was odd — they used to just peek at the window and wave at me but now they were wearing Hazmat suits (protective gear used to avoid health risks),” she continued. “They tried to break the news to me gently but I told them: I’m strong — tell it to me straight — I could handle it. And they confirmed my worst fear — my husband had passed away.”
Dr Mayella said: “Dan died due to cardiac and respiratory arrest on August 30. That was the biggest turning point in my life. There was a thin line between sanity and insanity but I had to be strong for my children. News reached our parent hospital in Dubai and everything was facilitated by Aster Sanad.”
“I was transferred back to a ward for recuperation and my kids, because there was no adult in the house, were also moved to a separate room in the hospital. My first instinct was to act brave and strong for my kids. I’m a doctor — I told myself — emotionally prepared and trained to convey and receive news about death.”
“I was brave or so I thought. For two days I did not cry and an intense pain was growing in my chest. I bottled up all my emotions until I could not hold them anymore and everything turned blank,” she added.
Second stay at ICU
Dr Mayella was sent back to the ICU, where she was intubated. She was put under induced coma because there was an instance that she extubated herself and had a near-death experience.
Mornings were very difficult for Dr Mayella as she had to struggle every waking hour to open her eyes and remember who she was. She experienced post-traumatic stress disorder — confusion, memory loss and depression. She said: “I was in coma for 18 days. When I woke up (around third week of September), I was totally disoriented. When the nurse asked for my name, I did not know what to answer. I knew I was in a hospital room — there was a mechanical vent; the date trees out of the window and the nearby construction site looked familiar. I forgot why I was in a hospital gown; I forgot I was a doctor; I forgot I had kids. But I did not forget I had a husband and I looked for him.”
Dr Mayella and Dan first met in college at Far Eastern University (FEU) in Manila, where they studied Bachelor of Science in Medical Technology. They were in their third year of a four-year degree course sharpening their knowledge and laboratory skills in the detection, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of diseases, when Dan professed to Dr Mayella he was in love the first time he saw her.
“Dan openly told me: ‘I will marry you someday’,” said Dr Mayella, adding: “But my parents were very strict and they wanted me to finish my medical degree. I did not yet return the affection but Dan and I became very close friends.”
After college, Dr Mayella moved to FEU-Nicanor Reyes Medical Foundation in Quezon City to become a physician while Dan followed his parents in Jeddah to work as a medical technologist.
Distance did not deter them to develop their cordial relationship. “Every time Dan went home to the Philippines for his annual leave, he would come straight to my dormitory to visit me,” she recalled.
Dan formally proposed marriage to Dr Mayella in 2007 and they got married the following year. But they had to continue with the long-distance relationship as Dr Mayella was doing her residency in Obstetrics & Gynaecology at Metropolitan Medical Center in Manila while Dan had a stable career at a hospital in Jeddah.
In 2012, four months after giving birth to their firstborn son, Dr Mayella was hired by Aster Sanad Hospital. She asked her husband to move to Riyadh and baby Luis Alfonzo was brought to Saudi by Mayella’s mother. In 2013, Joaquin Enrique was born, followed by Matteo Iñigo Sheridan in 2015.
The family was active and popular in the local Filipino community. The couple had flourishing medical careers — Dr Mayella was a popular and well-loved doctor while Dan was admired as a hard-working hospital staff. The boys were bright students at International Philippine School in Riyadh. Then COVID-19 came in 2020 and changed everything.
Dr Mayella had to stay at Aster Sanad Hospital for almost five months. A team of seven doctors, led by Syrian national and Specialist in Internal Medicine, Dr Waddah Alhaj Naeima, was created for the rehabilitation of Dr Mayella. She said: “My case was complicated that required multidisciplinary medicine. My organs were failing; aside from pulmonary infection, I had intestinal bleeding, secondary to gastritis. So, I was assigned a cardiologist, pulmonologist, gastroenterologist, hematologist, internist, physiotherapist and a psychologist for my mental trauma.”
Dr Mayella was returned to a regular ward and weaned off from oxygen ventilator only in third week of October. But she could barely move her body from neck down. “It was very painful to move my arms and I could not even sit down and stand up. The pain of losing a husband, persistent difficulty of breathing and inability to walk all because of COVID crushed the inner me,” she said.
What followed was intense rehabilitation and physiotherapy for Dr Mayella, who shared: “I could compare myself to a toddler, learning how to take a step every day. I was transferred to a Pedia Ward, two months after I was tested negative for COVID. The nurses, headed by Huda Al Bokhary, taught me how to move my legs. It was on November 29, my 40th birthday, that I successfully took my first step.”
Dr Mayella completed the rehabilitation and physical therapy for over a month while her boys had to discontinue their studies and stay at the hospital until she was discharged on January 8, 2021.
Home for good
The entire hospital — from the CEO to the specialists, nurses and medical staff — celebrated Dr Mayella’s victory over COVID-19. She and the kids are planning to go home in the Philippines for good, after nine memorable years in Riyadh, next month.
She said: “Despite the pandemic, remember that life must move on. Let us not forget to smile — and since our face is covered by mask, let our grin be shown with our eyes. Let us not spread the virus but propagate love, hope and support for everyone.”
Although she lost her husband in the battle, she uttered this prayer: “To my love and hero, Sheridan Chan Montemar, I have no regrets. I believe you’re in a happy, safe place now in heaven. Though death has separated us, we showed the world and our kids that we were united in love. We fought; we tried and I promise I will never get tired. Rest in peace, my Love — till we meet again.”