It was with a severe sense of loss and worse to come, that I traveled to the hospital on Friday, September 11th, 2009.
The hour in the taxi from Port St Johns to Umtata saw me staring at the pages of the book I had taken with - no need to see the speed (to avoid having to be part of my travel experience, indifference to oncoming traffic as the driver accelerated into blind corners on the wrong side of the road) and no need to underline the where and why I was going.
The walk to the place where Alf lay dying ... of RABIES! ... how could it be possible that in this age of medical wonders, there was nothing that could be done to stop the virus from reaching his brain and shut his body down - the walk was not something I could recall, I simply put one foot in front of the other until I reached the ward and the hospital bed that had become the final prison of a dying man.
His left hand had shown the first Rabies symptom - dumb paralysis - on Monday (almost two months since the bite), it was now Friday and the paralysis had spread up the arm, across his shoulders and neck and Alf's right hand and arm told him more than the medical team could or would. The team, of course, kept on denying the cause and the symptoms, the results of the blood tests and the obvious outcome ... as if their denial would change the fundamental truth that they were helpless. Being an academic training hospital, prescriptions for treatment were on hand BUT no medication was available - I made sure he took his heart and blood pressure meds and the hospital gave him two Panados -twice in two days and that was the extent of it. The hospital had no hot water, the food was predictable and students on all levels did their duties almost learning to care for the sick and the dying - theory practice, no more.
With no pharmacy or even a chemist close to the hospital, I had to find something for Alf's dry nose so he could breathe easier and feed him capfuls of liquid while his throat muscles started to collapse. The day was difficult ... more than that is hard to explain, never mind describe. And through it all Alf's sense of humour was what he fell back on. A senior sister told him she was going to force feed him, he said he would hurt her if she tried and when she stated the obvious - Sir, you are paralysed in both your arms ... he simply looked her in the eye and said ... come near me and I'll kick you to death!
I went home in time to catch the last taxi to Port St Johns, to return again after a night of research and despair at what I had found ... NO SURVIVORS, NO CURE, NOTHING TO BE DONE ... unless of course you count watching him die as doing something!
Saturday morning saw Alf's temp still rising but the nursing staff could not help him (two Panados don't scare the Rabies Virus into submission, nor fight a fever). A cold facecloth alternated with a hand-fan and then a cold cooldrink can rolled over his chest seemed to help a few minutes at a time. And then the agitation started. It was just after 2 in the afternoon and he suddenly snarled at me to stop touching him, stop breathing on him, stop being so loud! We shared a look and the knowledge that the virus had reached the end of its journey and then proceeded to discuss his last wishes.
Again that sense of humour - what about a wake or a memorial service after the cremation? I asked and he sneered "Not a fuck, they wanna get drunk they can do so on their own time and money. I would not mind a few of them having a blow in my memory - some hybrid perhaps!" And he was precise about who was not to be invited to this gathering.
He was sad at not being able to talk to his son Chad, who got engaged that Saturday afternoon but felt he could still beat the last assault of the virus. You see, he was fighting very hard to remain in control of his muscular system and was proud that he could still pee by himself - into a bag as "no hands means big mess" but he was still in charge NOT the virus.
Alf's eyes were bad to start with and reading glasses helped but not being able to use his hands, he was very mad at his sister for trying to call him and sending messages on his cellphone, instead of talking to me - especially as the nursing staff had removed his phone to charge it and refused to keep reading his messages out or holding the phone so he could talk when they had work to do. And when the doctor told him his sister had 'declined' to see him before he died, his heart was broken because as he said ..." she has a car, it's only four hours drive and her work will understand" after that he cursed her for not being there for him when he needed her most and for making his life miserable at the last, when she could have made a difference and said goodbye. And as was his way ... he vented on me and at me.
And then, when I leaned over to say goodbye and leave to go catch the taxi, he became very agitated at my being in front of the computer. Computer? I said ... yes, he replied, the fish finder can't you see all those fucking fish! We laughed and cried at that ... Alf was going to beat the virus after all - he was going fishing and no-one would find him or the dogs EVER! not even the Devil or God.
Sat with him being comatose all of Sunday and Monday morning and then, when I stepped outside while the students took temps, he left.