Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Maketū survivors horror ordeal in overseas ICU

Andrew Leota will never forget what it was like to watch people die.

“The life was getting sucked out of them.”

Lying on one of the last available intensive care unit beds in Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan, Leota could only breathe with the help of a respiratory mask.

He and five other Covid-19 patients were jammed into a room of about 36sq m that had been converted into an operating theatre, their beds pushed together.

“It was just beds by beds. We were all lying on our stomachs looking at each other.”

His fellow patients didn’t speak English but they communicated through hand signals and smiles.

In the four days Leota spent in the Kazakhstan ICU with Covid-19, three people died of the virus beside him. One was fairly young, the other two a little older.

“They didn’t have any family there. I don’t know what happened to them after [they died]. They just got trolleyed out, without saying goodbye at all.”

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The only thing Leota could do was try to breathe.

“Not being able to breathe is the worst feeling. It’s like trying to squeeze the life out of your lungs.”

The 46-year-old mine machinery technician and father of three usually splits his time between New Zealand, Canada and Kazakhstan.

Four days earlier, after finishing work to repair a copper mine crusher, Leota was preparing for the journey home to Maketū in late July.

“I was at the hotel waiting for my flight. It just got harder to breathe every day.

“I had been in Kazakhstan for a couple of months and I was just on my last week there getting ready to come home when a few of the boys got sick. A few guys had a cough, cold, sniffles.”

The 18 people in Leota’s crew would often work in confined spaces together and
seven of Leota’s colleagues eventually tested positive for Covid-19. Everyone except Leota was fully vaccinated using the Sputnik V vaccine.

“I was the only one with a single vaccination, the Sputnik V.”

Leota had no Covid-19 symptoms apart from difficulty in breathing.

“I still thought I was okay.”

After about four days he went to see a specialist and tested positive for the virus.

“It wasn’t until I was getting pushed into my first scan for my lungs, going down the hallways past people sick and coughing and babies crying that I thought s***.”

It took eight hours and visits to two hospitals before an ICU bed could be found for Leota.

“I had the last bed for that day. There’s a few million people living in Nur-Sultan and quite a few hospitals.”

It was late July when Leota was admitted to hospital. On July 26, the country experienced a record daily high of 6637 new cases of Covid-19..

According to the World Health Organisation between January 2020 and November 2021 Kazakhstan has had 1,033,639 cases.

The highest recorded number of deaths in a single day was 2291.

Leota described the conditions as “brutal” and the health system “overrun”.

“Everyone looked pretty rushed off their feet. It was pretty bad. There was no water, no air con. I couldn’t use my phone so my family had no idea what was happening.”

Over the next few days, Leota’s condition continued to deteriorate.

“It was the worst thing I’ve ever been through.

“I just wanted to go home. We Kiwis think we can fight anything off. I was going to do my best to fight it but you don’t really have a choice. The virus takes its own path.

“What I learnt in there was the old virus doesn’t discriminate. If it gets into your lungs, it’s basically, ‘good luck’. It doesn’t matter who you are, how fit or healthy, old or young.

“It has a good crack at you.”

Eventually, Leota had to be transferred to Berlin, Germany on a seven-hour flight.

“A crew from France picked me up … When I got there I started getting a little bit better but it wasn’t too good.”

The doctors in Germany gave Leota a 50/50 chance of survival.

“[My employer] flew the missus out to say goodbye. It was a pretty close call.”

Leota spent about 13 days in the hospital.

“Slowly I got better and they slowly weaned me off the oxygen. One of the comments the doctors said to me was that the one shot of vaccine I had really saved my life.”

Nearly five months later, Leota is still experiencing the effects of his fight with Covid.

“I’m only just being able to get a full breath now. I’ve had a lot of fatigue.”

Leota hopes Covid-19 does not hit New Zealand as badly as Kazakhstan but thinks people are “pretty complacent”.

“I don’t think people realise how bad it’s going to get. The numbers don’t lie. A hundred cases a day is massive. There’s going to be people that die.”

Leota said it was frustrating to meet people who didn’t believe the virus was real, or that the vaccine could help.

“I feel some people don’t want to take the vaccine because they don’t want to be told what to do. You can’t tell the virus what to do.

“When you’re on the table and you can’t breathe it’s too late to get the vaccine.”

Recent data modelling from the Lakes District Health Board shows about 100 people will die and there will be 14,000 Covid-19 cases in this area next year if an 80 per cent vaccination rate is achieved.

The most recent vaccination data shows 83 per cent of those over 12 in the region have had their first dose of the vaccine. Seventy-one per cent have received both.

University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker said it was very possible Leota’s one shot saved his life.

“Vaccination transforms the risk of surviving Covid-19. Even one vaccination can change the situation from a kick in the head to a slap in the face.”

Baker said the problem with Covid-19 was immune systems didn’t recognise the virus fast enough. So without vaccination people were like “sitting ducks”.

“There is no way I would want to encounter this virus without being vaccinated. I really don’t want to get long Covid. It’s a shocking condition.”

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