Near Death Club

BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN

The philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote that “fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”

These are valuable words which should ring in our ears over coming weeks and months as we club together to attempt to defeat COVID-19 and its many deleterious effects. Of course Coronavirus generates fear – it kills some of those it attacks and there’s no known cure. Fearing death is only natural – if you’re even a touch scared, this just means you’re human.

Nevertheless, compared to our ancestors who saw Death all around them, we have become absurdly soft and fearful. One cannot imagine our Victorian predecessors wittering publicly about Coronavirus like the nervous wreck that Piers Morgan has become. Where’s that Bulldog spirit? Geoffrey Wellum was just eighteen when in the summer of 1940 he was sent out to confront the might of Hitler’s Luftwaffe in the skies above southern England. In the seventeenth century, life expectancy was only about thirty-five years in England, people knew this only too well and gave life some welly – Halley making remarkable discoveries about stars and comets, while Newton revealed fundamental laws about the earth and the universe.

I confess I had doubts as to whether I should write this article. Firstly, as it may well tempt fate. Secondly, as the Government Medical Officer offers the only medical advice on Coronavirus one should listen to, and I am certainly not qualified to advise anyone on matters of health. The thing is that during my lifetime I have battled with two deadly viruses and a supposedly terminal condition and I have lived to tell the tale. Perhaps in relating my experiences to you there is something useful you can glean for battles ahead? If not, please just ignore my words from this sentence on – I wish you and your families all the very best and pray the scientists come up with a cure for this malady, sharpish.

The first virus I caught was Japanese Encephalitis which some bastard mosquito gave me at my best friend’s wedding party in 2001. A rare occurrence, it sparked the interest of the BBC at the time. I was on a river boat just outside Tokyo and the dumb mosquito had apparently gone to the trouble of biting a pig to pass the encephalitis virus onto me. I collapsed a few days after returning to Britain. I could not communicate or walk. I shook my head violently from one side to the other in agony as my brain ballooned and squashed up against the inside of my skull. I vomited bile all over the show while some wonderful doctors fought alongside me to save my life. On the second night in intensive care – admittedly I was drugged up to the eyeballs with anti-virals – I witnessed Death as it took the lives of a couple of elderly emphysema patients in our ward. I was young. I was not ready to join them on their journey. I watched the lady in front of me go, her frightened eyes fixed on mine as her soul exited her body. The dark shadow of what I can only describe as cloud-like graphene – sizzling like a sparkler – soon came to the end of my bed. Yes, I was fearful – certainly more scared than the scariest moment of my life up to then (when I faced the high knees of Mongo McNally on the wing aged thirteen). I recall an impasse that night. There was a standoff moment of what happens now? So I decided to be the first to act and gave Death the bird. Literally. Middle finger of right hand, raised right in its face. That seemed to do the trick. Ten days later, down from fourteen stone to ten with the veins on my toes the only ones left fit for the insertion of a venflom, I climbed out of bed, hobbled out of the hospital with a Spanish nurse in tow and went for a pint in a nearby pub. My recovery had begun.

Nine years later I was sent to the jungle in Mindanao for work. After a week or so in the jungle I started to feel unwell after foolishly abseiling each day down a mine without a mask and breathing in a load of bird and bat crap. Soon I had a high temperature and a horrendous cough. Sound familiar? I was driven to a nearby hostel – “hostel” is a kind word for the breeze block cell I found myself in for one hundred pesos a night. The room comprised a cold shower, a leaky corrugated roof, a bed, a bin, a chair, two thousand mosquitoes, a dead spider bigger than my hand and a rickety old desk. My cough deteriorated and my lungs began to rapidly fill up with gooey phlegm – every ten minutes or so it felt like I was drowning in it. I spat all the phlegm I could into the bin, which I had to empty many times. I dared not sleep for fear of drowning from the phlegm in my lungs. On day one my Filipino driver, Richie, delivered a crate of isotonic drinks then stayed in his van down the lane from the hostel watching out for any Abu Sayyaf loons. It was during the night of day two I became reacquainted with Death. Death was sat there at the desk when I awoke. I could not breathe. I had fallen asleep for too long. Once again there seemed to be a perceptible period of time during which I was left to make a choice. (It did occur to me that Death might be somewhat angrier with me this time round). So, with all the energy I could muster, I decided to simply ignore Death, turned on the light, stumbled into the shower and I coughed my lungs out so as to clear my airways and choose life. For perfect love casts out fear. So I thought of my wife and daughter during those crucial minutes – of my new-born son and my recently deceased father – as I collapsed in a heap onto the concrete floor of the shower in my boxers and t-shirt. I have no idea how many cough-interrupted Our Fathers I recited on the floor of that shower that night but the guest in the next door room must have heard them and he broke into my room. He turned the shower off, stripped off my wet clothes, dried me off and escorted me back to my bed, where he sat during the night beside me and mopped my burning brow with a cold flannel, waking me and forcing me to sip blue Gatorade every ten minutes or so. At one point in my delirium I thought I had been kidnapped, as my Samaritan was wearing a kufi and I was in someone else’s clothes – I never saw him again, never had a chance to hand him his clothes back and since that long night I have often wondered whether my guardian angel is that Muslim fellow. A few days later I was back in the jungle with a bottle of Black Label, some home-made pills from a local healer and a rucksack full of energy bars – virus dispatched – happily drinking from coconuts and chomping on fire-cooked chicken with the locals.

Just two years after that close encounter I was back in England and once again felt unwell (I assure you this is not a shaggy dog story). My doctor sent me straight to hospital as apparently my “inflammation rate” was off the scale. After my past experiences of getting ill in the Far East, the consultant I met at hospital put me straight into isolation and black and yellow danger signs were plastered on the door to my hospital room. Nurses dressed in masks came in to treat me – as if I were E.T. – while my breathing fast deteriorated. There was some talk of TB amongst the junior doctors. And I knew Death would be there soon enough. This time it was the first night in hospital when I was once again presented with a choice – I could hear the question being asked in my head, why should I live on? I had my reasons. So I confidently sat up in bed with all the lights on waiting for him. I watched episode after episode of Wheeler Dealers on Discovery Channel that night – I figured that if Death was doing his rounds then he might give me a miss, as I was obviously still a moron with lots still to learn from life. While an Edd China rebuild of a Lotus Elan S3 is alluring, I admit I was thinking more about my family. I remember a few tears were shed that night, many prayers uttered and I felt very alone in isolation. Of course I was scared. But Death never came this time, or I missed him. I was eventually diagnosed with acute sarcoidosis – my lungs were fast filling with tiny granuloma. I left hospital a week or so later, having turned down the traditional treatment of steroids – you’re the master of your own body, you know – instead choosing to avoid Google’s hypochondriac chatrooms, to switch diet, to drink loads of juice, to inhale essential oils and to take brisk walks with the dogs by the sea. Those decisions – and a bedtime Scotch – eventually hammered that third lurgy into oblivion.

Now, to the present – I sincerely hope that none of you get Coronavirus. Don’t fear it – mostly it’s mild or asymptomatic. If you do get Coronavirus and you suffer some of the worst of it, I wish you the very best of luck in your battle with it. Try your very best to avoid it. Near Death Club membership possibly inclines members to appreciate each day more but I tell you now that as a club – principally because of its demanding initiation rites – it is somewhat overrated. I am fully aware that when I faced down these illnesses, I was relatively young and fit – we are all different and carry distinct baggage in our medical make-ups. Nonetheless, I urge you to be British, scrap like hell with Coronavirus if you do get it – and if Death does come to visit, just give him the bird. Meanwhile, if anyone is putting together a cohort of pathfinder Brits to purposefully get the Coronavirus, this cockroach, now in his forties, happily volunteers. Why? The thought of those still living from the sacrificing war generation not having those from younger generations with immunity certificates to accompany and supply them into their last days is both unthinkable and thoroughly unBritish.

Dominic Wightman is the Editor of Country Squire Magazine. 

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