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  • It started with high fever. Faisal did not have any symptoms of COVID-19.
  • It was assumed to be influenza.
  • A few days later, his fever became unbearable.
  • He was tested and was found to be COVID-19-positive.

He died on May 15, 2020.

He was born on August 15, 1975.

Three months before his 45th birthday.

Time: 7:30 pm

Place of death: Copenhagen, Denmark

Reason of death: COVID-19

His name was Faisal Hameed Khan.

Those mourning him are his parents, his wife, Sheema, two daughters, two siblings, his brother-in-law. Among those who mourn him are his many relatives, friends, even those who weren’t close to him. He was that kind of a human being, many would say.

I didn’t know Faisal. I found out about him through his brother-in-law, Hassan, a Twitter buddy. At that time, Faisal was on ECMO. The few weeks that I enquired about him, his condition kept worsening. I often prayed for him. A complete stranger, I prayed for his recovery. I cried when he died. I had to write about him.

There were many prayers for Faisal. For his return to his very lovely, very brave wife, his two wonderful daughters. For him to be with his parents in Islamabad who couldn’t travel because of the coronavirus travel bans. For him to meet his two siblings, his brother in Islamabad, his sister in Oman. The best of medical treatment in Copenhagen, and unquantifiable prayers from his loved ones could not save Faisal. He left them all.

In 47 days, COVID-19 took Faisal away from everyone he loved, everyone who could not imagine life without him.

In 47 days, all of them learnt to be without Faisal, without being able to see him in person most of the time, without even being in the same city, same country. The world of COVID-19 has redefined rules of sickness, closeness, pain, helplessness, patience, death.

In 47 days, Faisal, a man who had many of his dreams and the rest of his life ahead of him, turned into a statistic in the long list of the victims of the global pandemic spread by the novel coronavirus.

In 47 days, COVID-19 turned the full, meaningful, happy, love and laughter-filled life of a perfectly healthy, non-smoker, fitness-conscious, 44-year-old man into an obituary.

When a Danish doctor spoke to Faisal’s mother on phone for permission to switch off the machines that kept him artificially breathing, her simple reply was, “Main kya kahun jab Allah ne ijaazat de di hai? (What am I supposed to say if Allah has given His permission?)

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Faisal’s brother, Asad, described his late brother as someone who bore “no grudges. He was unable to keep anything in. He wasn’t afraid of crying or expressing his dislike as much as he expressed his love. He laughed openly with all his body and jerked his head back softly, unconsciously, when happy. He could answer the same questions with the same patience a million times. He spoke very softly but wouldn't hesitate to share his annoyance. And he forgave as easily too.”

For Faisal’s sister, Naveen, in the words of her husband Hassan, “There wasn't a single day I didn't see my wife begging Allah to give her brother back to her. It's has been a dagger through the heart.”

To Sheema, his wife, Faisal, was an “amazing dad, amazing husband, lovely brother, son, son-in-law.”

Sheema says, “COVID was a very bad experience but it was also a very beautiful journey. Faith and fear went hand in hand. When the fear became too much, faith overcame that fear.”

Best friends

The bonding of Faisal and Sheema deepened in Denmark in the absence of family and friends. Faisal and Sheema were best friends. They shared “everything with one another.”

Sheema told me, in several voice notes, the story of Faisal’s illness, which began on March 28 or 29. Her calm voice was a manifestation of an incredible reserve of strength that became her closest ally as she watched her husband fight a disease that baffled and continues to baffle doctors across the world. Assured that her beloved husband was receiving the best possible medical treatment, Sheema kept her faith alive with endless prayers. She was not just a wife who waited for her husband, her best friend, to return home. She was also a devoted mother who ensured that her daughters were loved and remained strong as they waited for their dad to return home.

The word limit of an article makes it difficult for me to write the exhaustive details of Faisal’s weeks-long hospitalisation. I wish I could write it all. For millions of Pakistanis and others, trivialisation of the deadliness of the coronavirus is perhaps their vain attempt to wish away its existence. How the coronavirus attacks the system of healthy human beings, turning their lungs and other organs into non-functioning parts of a rapidly deteriorating body, is something that should be exhaustively written about, reiterated in TV shows, emphasised through pulpits of politicians and clergy.

Not in all, but in many, many cases of COVID-19 people die. Of the 5,927,255 confirmed cases globally, deaths of 364,933 people, as reported on May 30, is the stark, very painful, very real authentication of the deadliness of COVID-19.

Condensing 47 days of Faisal’s illness in a few paragraphs is something I wish I didn’t ever have to do.

It started with high fever. Faisal did not have any symptoms of COVID-19. It was assumed to be influenza. A few days later, his fever became unbearable. He was tested and was found to be COVID-19-positive. He was shocked. So was his wife. With his meticulousness to observe all coronavirus prevention precautions, he had no idea how the virus had entered his body.

On the first day of diagnosis, strange sounds emitted from his abdomen. Sheema monitored him very closely, sitting outside his room all night long. The next day, he felt worse. He started to shake. He was hospitalised the same night.

Faisal didn’t want to go. The idea of the isolation of COVID-19 unnerved him. “Faisal was the sort who liked people around him, especially me and the girls,” Sheema says. All was well when they were together.

That day, Faisal “rested, ate well, talked to his family, parents, sister. We made a video and sent it to everyone, that he was doing better. Sitting up, smiling, but he wasn’t talking that day.”

On April 8, Faisal went to the hospital. He asked Sheema, “Do you think I’d make it.” She said, “Of course, you will. You just need to breathe; you’ll be back soon.” It was an intensely emotional moment for his family. His wife couldn’t accompany him. She stayed behind with their daughters. The three of them watched Faisal leave in an ambulance.

Faisal never came back home.

On April 10, Sheema spoke to him. It was 10 am. It was the last time they had a proper conversation.

The first day in hospital, Faisal’s condition improved. On April 10, carbon dioxide started to accumulate in his body. He was placed on a ventilator.

A rapid deterioration followed. There was high fever but no cough. In two days, Faisal was placed on a ventilator. He was incubated. He was sedated. Doctors performed a tracheostomy. Sometimes, he seemed to be recovering well. Two and a half weeks later, still on ventilator, he collapsed.

Outside, Faisal’s wife was in indescribable pain. One reason for Sheema’s pain: she couldn’t see him. She was alone with her daughters. Her only communication with the outside world was via her phone. She cried. She was “a mess.” After having a sore throat, she got tested. She was COVID-19 positive, too. Her isolation began. She couldn’t go to the hospital. Her communication with Faisal’s attending medical staff was via phone.

The hospital staff was very kind. Every night, for 30 minutes, they talked to Sheema. The hospital permitted her to call four or five times in a day, as many times as she wanted. The staff used to give her updates. They arranged video calls. The first time Sheema had a video call with Faisal, his “breathing became faster.” She saw it in the video. The staff told her that it meant he could recognise her. When he was conscious, he saw her when she video-called him.

The medical staff used to reassure her that he would get well and return home. Despite their best efforts, Faisal never recovered.

The uncertainty

To Sheema, throughout that entire time, “the most suffocating and tortuous thing was that I could not go to Faisal.”

Days passed. Faisal remained unwell. There was much fear, much uncertainty. In other illnesses, patients, even the critically ill ones, are not placed in complete isolation, and visitation is permitted. COVID-19 patients do not have that privilege. They are alone in their germ-free, human-free rooms. Their doctors and nurses are their only visitors.

Even on ventilator, oxygen was insufficient, depleting. After two and a half weeks, Sheema received a call from the hospital. “That was one of the most terrifying moments.” She was asked to meet him. The hospital and Sheema had an arrangement: she could call as many times as she wanted, even at midnight, whenever she felt worried or scared, but the hospital would only call if there was something seriously wrong. “I used to dread it. I had this constant fear. Of this call from the hospital. One morning I got a call.”

COVID-19, in its critical form, has phases. Faisal, according to his doctors, had reached the third phase. His lungs deteriorated. His ventilator wasn’t providing full oxygenation. He had to be flipped on his stomach. They didn’t know what lay ahead. If oxygen keeps dropping in the blood, death occurs in a few hours. They told Sheema to visit Faisal.

Sheema had COVID-19. Her daughters were in the same house. The mother had to explain to her girls their dad’s state. She had told them that their baba’s condition was hopeful. That he would be back. Now it seemed that he may not be able to make it. For Sheema, “it was one of the worst days of the whole ordeal. It was very difficult for us.”

Faisal had been on ventilator for 16 days. His body rejected the new process. Faisal was moved to another hospital, one of Denmark’s biggest research institutes. His age was a very significant factor in his fight against COVID-19. Doctors were doing their best to ensure that he got better. Faisal’s extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) started.

Sheema says: “During all that I give a lot of credit to the Danish healthcare system. They were so professional, so thorough I didn’t have to run after them for anything. The doctors, despite being so educated, trained and experienced are not too egoistic to accept the fact that they don’t know how the disease would develop. Whatever is in their capacity, they try to do it to heal the patient.”

The doctors tried many treatments hoping something might work. Sheema’s religious belief strengthened her: “When it is time, it is time.” Even if she lost him, she would be assured that he received the best available treatment.

Faisal was on ECMO for twenty days. Faisal was sedated. He was brought out of sedation a couple of times. The hospital staff helped him sit up.

At home, Sheema and one of her daughters were COVID-19-positive and in isolation.

Faisal’s condition worsened. He could sense that something was wrong, that he was not getting better. Small things became important. A nurse told Sheema that Faisal wanted his hand to be held. It comforted him. Human touch and care matter even in a mysterious disease like COVID-19.

The Danish nursing staff was incredible. On the last day, Sheema had a thank-you speech for them. They tried to make things extremely comfortable for her. She would give them water with Quranic ayats recited on it, and a recording of Surah Rehman. They made sure everything reached Faisal. They consoled Sheema. Their main concern was to ensure that Faisal was reunited with his family full recovered. Their apnaiyat deeply moved Sheema. Foreign country, different religion, but they showed respect for Sheema’s faith, her spiritual remedies for Faisal.

A video call was arranged. Faisal seemed to be getting better. The sound of his breathing improved. The call was very memorable for the family. It was Wednesday, May 13.

Hope and despair

When Sheema called, and Faisal was awake, they held the phone to his ear. She’d ask them if hearing her voice didn’t overwhelm him. Their answer would be that his heart rate and blood pressure improved when he heard her voice. They asked her to talk to him. They’d ask Faisal if he wanted to hear Sheema’s voice. His answer was always: “Haa’n” (yes).

He was woken up. They had him sit up. Faisal saw his family. He could hear them.

Sheema “asked him if he could hear my voice on phone. He nodded. He couldn’t talk because of the tracheostomy. I said, ‘Do you feel good talking?’ He said, ‘Yes’. I asked, ‘Do you want to see the kids?’ He nodded. I woke up the girls, and said, ‘Say bye to him, say bye to Baba.’ They didn’t want to see their Baba like that, so many tubes. But they did. They talked to him. He nodded. We said goodbye to him.”

The next day the hospital called again. Faisal’s coughing exacerbated. He couldn’t talk. Sheema could sense he wasn’t okay. He seemed exhausted. They talked again. She said: “We love you, Baba.” He mumbled: “Haa’n.” Sheema used to call him Baba. “It was our thing. He called me mama when we addressed one another with love.” She said, “I love you, Baba, do you love me?” She asked him if he wanted to talk to his daughters. They said goodbye. Sheema said, “I promise, you’d come out of it soon. Just a few more days.”

At that time, they were very hopeful he would make it. But his coughing worsened. He was bleeding in his lungs. The doctors put him under heavy sedation.

All those days, endless prayers surrounded Faisal. Prayers of his wife and daughters, his parents and siblings, his friends and relatives. Many sadqas were given. The faith consoled as doctors tried their best to heal Faisal.

Faisal did not get well.

A week earlier, on Thursday, Faisal was sedated. On Friday, internal bleeding started. The doctors asked Sheema to get tested. Both she and her daughter tested negative. On Monday morning Sheema went to meet Faisal. He was sleeping. “Deeply sedated. I couldn’t touch him. He was in COVID-19 isolation. I recited things. They gave me half an hour. Allah kept me so calm. The doctors let me stay for two hours. I kept talking to Faisal. Saying to him, ‘You need to get up, and see how much love you have received from so many people’.”

A bronchoscopy and CT scans were done. Faisal’s condition worsened. From Monday, May 11 to Thursday, May 14, Faisal was tested for COVID-19. After the bleeding episode, his tests were negative. Perhaps, Sheema says, it was because of ECMO. Four tests were negative. He was moved to an ICU that didn’t stipulate isolation.

To Sheema “it was Allah’s raza (will), Allah’s karam (favour) on us. Our prayers were heard. We could meet Faisal, be with him.”

It was May 15, Friday morning. Sheema went to meet Faisal. She recited duas. That day she was with Faisal without PPE. She had not been with him for days. Her visits had to follow strict safety guidelines. Now she could visit him every day. “But it turned out to be my last day with him.”

Sheema sat with him for three hours. She dabbed him with water recited with ayats. She recited prayers. The doctors prescribed another bronchoscopy. Faisal, at that time, had a drain in one of his lungs. The doctor showed Sheema images of his lungs. “I knew he wouldn’t be able to make it. Even if he did, it there wouldn’t be anything left in his lungs.” Transplant is not a viable option for patients in that condition.

At 4pm, the doctors told Sheema they were starting the bronchoscopy. At 6pm, they called her again to tell her that it was impossible then to even enter his other lung as his lungs had had a complete shutdown. They told her that they couldn’t do anything. They told her that they had to let him go. They told her that “his lungs as organs were finished.” And they told her that they were going to let him be on his own, removed from machines.

Sheema asked them “if they were going to do it on their own or if she could come. They said they wouldn’t do anything until I say so. I spoke to his family back home. All along, I was in touch with them. I gave them all the updates. I told them what the doctors said. Their first reaction was shock… one more try, a few more days, some miracle. But they knew: it was over medically. The family okayed it, but they left the final decision to me.”

Sheema told the doctors: “I want to be by his side when you remove him from the machines.” Sheema sat with Faisal. “I was able to hold his hand. I was able to kiss him goodbye. And I was able to recite prayers for him. I didn’t have to wear gloves to touch him. That was a huge achievement for me. The four-and-a-half-weeks’ suffocation changed into those incredible achievements for me. That I could stand near him. That became my biggest strength. That became my immense gratitude to Allah. Even when I knew that the pain of his departure will never end.”

Faisal passed away on May 15, 2020.

Sheema misses Faisal “in each and everything. All that happened. For me to get out of that suffocation, of being COVID-19 free, Faisal being COVID-19 free before his death, us being with one another… It gave me so much strength that perhaps that is the reason why it was easy for me to send him away. For me it was an indescribably big thing that in his last moments I was with him.”

For Sheema “life is never going to be same. Faisal was such a complete part of me I see him in everything.”

For Sheema the acceptance of the worst has much to do with “how Allah let me into Faisal’s isolation. The almost five weeks of helplessness were bearable because of Allah. Not for a moment did I feel that it was a bad decision for Faisal. If Allah had given him back to us, I wonder in which condition he would have been. All these thoughts give me sabr (patience), sakoon (solace).”

Faisal and Sheema’s relationship was so deep they always “needed one another’s approval. Especially Faisal. He’d always ask me [before he did anything]. He had a lot of trust in me. Our love was that I felt if we were having a real conversation, Faisal would have asked me: ‘Sheema, ab main chala jaoun?’ (May I go now?)

Faisal would have asked me: ‘Would you and the children be okay if I were to go?’ That is the feeling I had when I sent him off. It was a beautiful moment. It will stay very close to my heart for the rest of my life.”

The loss of Faisal for Sheema is forever.

And Sheema reiterates: “COVID-19 is deadly. And COVID-19 is worse than any other disease because no doctor can assure you or promise you anything like they do in all other diseases. COVID-19 has to be lived every day. And you have to die every day with the hope that there is another morning. I’m very grateful to Allah for giving me those final weeks of Faisal. In such a critical condition but still with us. And I think that is what has made his journey of going home [to Allah] so easy as well.”

Faisal's mortal remains arrived in Pakistan on May 21, 2020. His burial was on May 22, Jumma-tul-wida.

COVID-19 killed another human being. COVID-19 continues to kill.

May Faisal rest in light and love.

May Allah watch over His loved ones.

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