Battle vs COVID-19 turns into a journey of faith
In the early days of the pandemic, Noel Cuaresma was officially known as “PH 163”—the 163rd case of COVID-19 reported in the country.
Cuaresma, of the House of Representatives’ Printing and Reproduction Service, was the second employee in the chamber to contract the new coronavirus. He has fully recovered but his 10-day confinement tested his faith and fortitude.
“I am grateful for this new chance at life,” said the 56-year-old father of three. “With all my symptoms, I was so close to losing my life. If not for God and my resolve to fight [the virus] by thinking that I will live, I won’t be here.”
“Mind over matter,” he declared.
Cuaresma was confined at San Lazaro Hospital in Santa Cruz, Manila, on March 15-25, 2020.
On March 2 he first experienced fever, diarrhea, body pain and malaise, which he initially brushed off as a case of the flu. He tried to regain his energy by drinking Gatorade but the symptoms persisted.
Eventually he told his wife, Lolit, a court employee, that he would get himself checked.
On March 9 Cuaresma was admitted to the Diliman Doctors Hospital where he underwent a series of tests, including an X-ray and a CT scan that led to a diagnosis of viral pneumonia.
On March 12 he was administered the RT-PCR test, but his doctor told Lolit “not to wait for the result” as the symptoms were progressing to COVID-19.
Cuaresma then decided to transfer to San Lazaro Hospital, which specializes in infectious diseases. On the night of March 14 he was taken there by ambulance; on March 16 he was told that he was positive for COVID-19.
Lizards for company
Cuaresma was confined in a small room with a bathroom, an electric fan and a refrigerator.
He said a pair of lizards kept him company as he fought off the disease and the loneliness that came with isolation.
He also had to fend for himself. “March 18, the day that my [IV drip] was removed, I washed my clothes after taking a bath. I had no detergent so I used bath soap, and shampoo as fabric conditioner! I looked for plastic straws, and tied them together to make a clothesline,” he recalled, chuckling.
Hospital staff knocked on his door and left him his meals thrice a day. If he needed anything from the nurses’ station, he texted or called a number.
In his many idle moments Cuaresma looked out the window and watched the community go about its routine—the time of day when a resident walked his dog, for example, and the time that another spent in building a doghouse.
He took note of all of these, along with his medication, in a diary: “It was the first time I documented everything happening around me. What medicines I was given, what [each] was for. I would even check it on Google,” he said.
Cuaresma was also observant of the sounds outside his hospital room, the footsteps and voices giving him clues on the comings and goings of patients and hospital staff.
“I could tell if there was a new patient admitted nearby,” he said. “I did everything to amuse myself, keep busy. I even drew a floor plan of my room, which measured 2.5 meters by 6 meters.”
He added in jest: “I really had no one to talk to. Maybe the electric fan. Sometimes I thought of talking to the two lizards in my room, since they would nibble on me at night.”
At other times, he binged on Netflix on his phone, completing two seasons of “Outlander.”
A few days into isolation, Cuaresma began feeling better and regained his appetite, although occasional bouts of coughing afflicted him.
He said he never lost hope, fervently believing as he did that God would heal him and that he had many friends from the group Couples for Christ (CFC) praying for his recovery.
“In my mind, I told myself that I will live,” he said. “If you instill in your mind that you will live, your body will respond to it. That’s my philosophy in life.”
Cuaresma admitted that pining for his loved ones—who fortunately all tested negative for the virus—was the most difficult part of his hospital stay.
His wife Lolit and their children checked on him through video calls and sent clips of his then 2-month-old granddaughter to cheer him up. “I kidded them: ‘I’d agree to be jailed for one year instead of this… At least in jail there are others you can interact with. That’s the hardest part: Having no one to talk to and being alone,” he said.
And it was the first time that Cuaresma and his wife of 35 years were apart for long.
A day into his confinement, Lolit braved the lockdown and traveled to the hospital to catch a glimpse of her husband.
Recalled Cuaresma: “She said, ‘I just want to see you.’ I told her to look for the window beside the mango tree. I waved at her and she was waving back at me from the street until a security guard told her [to stop].
“At that point, I asked myself, ‘What is happening to me?’ I shook my head in disbelief. Is this pandemic real?”
The support of his family, colleagues and CFC friends helped Cuaresma bear the last days of isolation.
“They would message me, ‘We are praying for your recovery.’ How can you not recover and continue living when you have so many people praying for you?” he said.
Cuaresma initially expected to be discharged when he began feeling better, and even told his family that he was preparing to go home. But on March 23, his RT-PCR test still turned out positive.
“That’s when I felt the tears coming for the first time since I was hospitalized,” he said. “I really wanted to see my family, my granddaughter. … I asked Him, ‘What are your plans for me?’ I didn’t tell my family that I was still positive, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
But the next day brought happy news. “A nurse came and gave me papers to sign and told me, ‘Sir, you’re already negative.’ Oh, how I jumped like Ramos!” Cuaresma said, referring to the famous leap of Gen. Fidel V. Ramos at the end of the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos dictatorship.
“My hands were shaking with joy as I signed the [discharge] papers,” he said.
‘This will also end’
A CFC friend drove Cuaresma from the hospital to the family home in Quezon City. He underwent another 14 days of isolation at home and returned to work in June, but with new arrangements in place due to the pandemic.
Cuaresma is fortunate to have survived. A younger office mate of his who contracted the virus at about the same time didn’t make it.
But even as life has changed drastically worldwide and with the growing number of COVID-19 cases here, Cuaresma remains optimistic that “nothing is permanent” and the pandemic would end.
“Every problem has a solution, even if it takes a bit long. This will also end. Remember, past pandemics also took years to control,” he said.
Cuaresma said his experience had taught him to be more careful of his health and to take the public health crisis seriously.
“Many have shed tears over lost lives, lost jobs. It’s very difficult to fight an unseen enemy. But for me, I still have faith in the Lord. We have Him to lean on,” Cuaresma said.
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