What Salem Collector thought was the common cold, was actually the beginning of a long battle with severe COVID-19. Salem recalls his experience in the first episode of COVID Stories 246. (BGIS)

Thirty-four-year-old Salem Collector is one of the over 6,000 Barbadians who contracted and recovered from COVID-19. However, his story may be unlike most, as he spent one month at the Harrison Point Isolation Facility fighting for his life, a week at Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH), where critical tests had to be done, and when he was discharged, he had to sleep with supplemental oxygen nightly, for three months.

While battling with his own failing health, Salem’s focus was divided because his mother, wife, son and niece had also tested positive for the virus.  And, while his wife, son and niece were asymptomatic, his mum was extremely sick.

In mid-February 2021, the self-employed electrician thought he had the flu, and started taking tablets, cold medicine and vitamins, but the symptoms persisted.  At that time, his wheelchair-bound mother also fell ill, and during the week, she worsened and the family doctor had to be called in during the wee hours of the day.  Because her oxygen levels were very low, an ambulance was summoned and she was rushed to the QEH.

“The next morning, we received the call from the doctor saying that my mum had tested positive for COVID-19, and that the whole family had to be tested. That shattered me right there because my mum was in a wheelchair and used a walker and was not able to move around, so I wondered who would look after her now she would be hospitalised,” he said.

Salem and the other members of his household went to the Wildey Gymnasium and did the rapid antigen tests, which came back positive. Later in the day, they took the PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test, but space constraints at the Blackman and Gollop School prevented the family from immediately going into isolation at that facility.

“When I left the Gymnasium and returned home, my symptoms worsened. I had shortness of breath, I was coughing a lot, and wheezing, so I called my general practitioner and went there. He assessed me; put the stethoscope on my chest and said he was hearing some rattling in the lungs, so he advised me to go to the hospital to get oxygen and I immediately went there….

“I was put on oxygen and the next evening I was transferred to the Enmore Compound (opposite the hospital), where I was also put on oxygen. By that same time, the PCR test done at the hospital also came back positive, so the doctor said I would be transferred to the primary ICU [intensive care unit] at Harrison Point because I was critically ill,” he explained.

On the job: Salem Collector has returned to work after fighting COVID-19. (C. Pitt/BGIS)

Salem pointed out that he joined his mum at the St. Lucy-based location and they were in the primary intensive care unit, separated by a few beds.

“When I got to Harrison Point, the doctor did an assessment and realised that my saturation levels were really low, so I received face mask oxygen. But my levels were still dropping, so they increased my oxygen intake and eventually gave me oxygen from a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine.  When they did the x-ray the next day, they said my lungs were collapsing, so I was severely ill,” he surmised.

At that time, he was obviously worried about his deteriorating health and that of his mum, who was on a ventilator and in a coma.  With his voice dropping, Salem said that seeing his mum in that condition crushed him and he started to cry.

“The psychologist came and counselled me, but then, my illness became even more critical, so they had me on the CPAP machine every night, high flow oxygen from morning until lunch time, and I was back on the CPAP machine after lunch,” he stated. He spent two weeks on the CPAP machine and during that time, his mum, who had spent one week at Harrison Point, died.

“COVID is real. There are a lot of people who don’t believe it is real, and that is very unfortunate. But it is real! I went through it and what I experienced, I don’t wish it on anyone.”

COVID-19 survivor, Salem Collector

After spending nearly three weeks in bed, the physiotherapist worked with Salem to help him regain his mobility. After four weeks at the isolation facility, he was transferred to the QEH for further tests, since two blood clots had been discovered in his lungs.

“The one on the right lung was bigger than the other on the left lung, so the doctor had me on blood thinner medication to help dissolve the blood clots,” he explained.  He added that the blood clots have “sort of cleared”, but he is still on the medication and is due to return to the doctor in October for a follow-up CT scan.

Since returning home, he has had to use oxygen during the night for three months, thus racking up a whopping personal bill of about $1,800.  “I had to use oxygen bottles at home and that was a cost to me because I had to refill them every week.  A bottle only lasted about four nights and they were quite costly…. So, COVID-19 was a cost to the health care system in Barbados and a personal expense to me,” he pointed out.

After consulting his medical team and engaging in their own discussions, Salem and his family are now fully vaccinated.  As he puts it, “I don’t want to go through what I went through again”.  It is a decision he is happy that he has taken, especially with the emergence of the Delta variant of the virus.

Salem Collector won his battle with COVID-19. (C. Pitt/BGIS)

He has stepped up his guard and he now wears the KN95 mask, instead of the cloth one he previously used.  “I do more sanitising and physical distancing; I try to do more outdoors rather than indoors, and I avoid those unventilated spaces,” he stated, as to how he tries to keep himself safe.

Salem has high praises for the medical team who took care of him at both institutions.  He described Harrison Point as an “excellent facility”, and thanked Government for its foresight in setting it up.  He said he could not complain about the service he received while he was there.

“It is a world-class, state-of-the-art facility. If we did not have the facility what would happen to us?  So it was a good move on Government’s part to provide it for COVID,” he stressed.    

With all that Salem has gone through over the past seven months, his heartfelt message to Barbadians is to follow the protocols and don’t let down their guard.  In addition, he is urging fellow citizens to get that additional layer of protection and get vaccinated.

“My advice to Barbadians is to go ahead and take the vaccine because if you get COVID-19, you will be hospitalised, and you will put a burden on the health care system, yourself, your body, your family and your friends.”

Salem Collector urging persons to get vaccinated against COVID-19

“My advice to Barbadians is to go ahead and take the vaccine because if you get COVID-19, you will be hospitalised, and you will put a burden on the health care system, yourself, your body, your family and your friends,” he urged.

As we make our decisions, we must reflect on Salem’s thoughts on this virus, that, as at September 20, has claimed the lives of 59 people residing here: “COVID is real. There are a lot of people who don’t believe it is real, and that is very unfortunate. But it is real! I went through it and what I experienced, I don’t wish it on anyone.”

sharon.austingill-moore@barbados.gov.bb

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