A frontline doctor who helped treat COVID-19 patients in Saudi Arabia before contracting the virus herself, has left hospital after a five-month battle for her life.
Now, Dr Mayella Montemar, speaking to Al Arabiya English, has urged everyone to get vaccinated and help stem the tide of the coronavirus, which left her unable to walk and robbed her of her husband.
Dr Montemar, a resident doctor in obstetrics and gynecology, at Aster Sanad Hospital in Riyadh, began experiencing shortness of breath and fever in mid-August 2020. By August 20, both her and her husband, Sheridan Chan Montemar, a 49-year-old national guard in Saudi Arabia and her childhood sweetheart, tested positive for the virus.
Two days later, she was admitted to at Aster Sanad Hospital where she worked as a doctor, as she began experiencing severe breathing difficulties, nausea and vomiting.
A Filipino, Dr Montemar had practiced medicine in Saudi Arabia for nine years and calls the country “home”; and the place where she and her husband got married, and raised three young children.
“As a frontline worker with Aster Sanad Hospital I had seen and helped treat patients with COVID-19. As physicians we expect this (to contract the virus”) to happen, but I didn’t expect the symptoms to be so severe.”
With a history of severe asthma, Dr Montemar began experiencing severe complications, and admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) on August 29.
“I found it so difficult; I am normally a very active person and used to running-about. Being in isolation was hard. It saddened me.”
Unbeknown to Dr Montemar, her husband – who had originally suffered minor complications and was at home caring for the couples’ three children, then aged 5, 6 and 8, began experiencing deteriorating health.
Admitted to hospital on August 30, after suffering severe chest pain, he died shortly after.
“I wasn’t told straight away,” said Dr Montemar. “There was worry for my sanity – and whether I would want to carry on and fight knowing my husband was dead.”
After a friend broke the news, she said she was in a state of shock.
“At the back of my mind I knew I had to be strong for my children.”
Moved to a regular ward after a period in ICU, Dr Montemar continued to experience “unimaginable pain” in her chest.
What saved her, she said, was the kindness that staff, and her colleagues at at Aster Sanad Hospital provided for her, including finding a home for her three children whilst she recovered in hospital.
When Dr Montemar was back on a day ward in September, she was once again moved back to ICU due to ongoing complications, including pneumonia which left her unable to walk.
“I was unable to stand or place one foot in front of the other, and the pain in my back was excruciating,” she recalled.
In the meantime, her three children all contracted the virus. They were also put in isolation at the same hospital until they were clear of the virus.
“I remember waking up one day and not knowing who I was, how old I was and where I was,” said Dr Montemar. “The hospital staff said I was just asking for my husband.”
Dr Montemar only has snippets of memories of her time battling the virus in hospital, as doctors and care staff helped wean her off oxygen support, and she underwent rehabilitative treatment to regain the ability to walk with a support aid.
On her 40th birthday, on November 29, she made a vow to herself not to give up for the sake of her three children.
By Christmas, Dr Montemar could take independent steps with the help of a walking aid, and she was finally discharged on January 8.
“There was a feeling of being afraid about facing life again. But ultimately I am grateful to be alive.”
Now she is urging people to get vaccinated.
“The vaccine is the only preventative measure we have at present. Any treatment possible in this current situation is of a big help for the whole world.
“We should take this COVID-19 pandemic seriously and help each other save lives.”
Dr Waddah Alhaj Naeima, a specialist in internal medicine at the hopsital, treated Dr Montemar and described her as "very strong."