32-year-old Dr. Amarachukwu Karen Allison vividly remembers the day Nigeria’s first COVID-19 case, the 44-year-old Italian man, checked into her clinic, just minutes before she was due to clock out and bin the day’s lab coat in the washing machine, after yet another gruelling shift.
“I was very scared. I can’t even explain it. Because it was something that...we were really not very concerned, if I’m being honest. We thought it was something (COVID-19) that was very far away,” she says now with that infectious, youthful cadence and chirpiness.
“Two days after another training, I was telling my colleagues that 'abeg..we just keep having these trainings like two times a day. This thing won’t come to this Nigeria jare.'
"Even if it comes to Nigeria, it won’t get to Ewekoro (a rustic, industrial hub in Ogun State, Southwest Nigeria). And that’s the attitude that gets you into trouble. An average Nigerian thinks like that,” she says, memories flooding back.
It was late February of 2020 and the developed world had begun to report hundreds of cases of a novel, highly infectious and lethal virus that was first diagnosed in a Chinese laboratory with no known cure.
Lock-downs and restrictions were being mooted, governments across the world were scrambling to get a grip on things, everyone was running scared and Imo State-born Allison was literally at sea in an Ewekoro clinic.
“That day, it was about 30 minutes or less before I was off duty and the nurse just comes and says you have a patient...and I’m like...ahhh, patient, why? I saw his temperature and I just started taking his history and by the time he told me his symptoms...and you know at the time, COVID-19 symptoms weren’t even classic.
"But there was no other thing that could explain his high temperature….” she adds, a bit misty-eyed now on a windy July afternoon in the Pulse Nigeria office sprawled on a serene, green complex in Ikeja, GRA.
“I didn’t have my PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) on at this time. The good thing is that we(the Italian and herself) were not facing each other, with the way our consulting room is arranged.
"We were in an enclosed room, the Air Conditioner was on and we were having a chat. At some points, we exchanged objects and we got into each other’s personal space.
“So, it was really scary. When I started to suspect that he had COVID-19, I offered him a mask and wore one as well. So I told him: ‘I think this is what you have, however, there are other things I would like to rule out. We’d also do some tests and I’d need to isolate you.’
She was surprised at how cooperative the Italian was--especially since it was his first time in Nigeria or Africa for that matter.
"For someone that had been in Nigeria for just two days, first time in Nigeria, Africa! He was really calm and cooperative,” Allison says now, her mask temporarily off her face and a broad smile playing on the corner of her lips.
“The Italian said to me: ‘Doctor, I don’t have a cough, I don’t have a sore throat, I don’t have any breathing difficulties. I just have a fever.. a headache, so why do you think I have COVID? So I said Ok, well, you have a fever, you have a headache, you have body aches, you have diarrhea, let’s just be sure it’s not COVID.
"I said it may be COVID or not,” she recalls, saying she was trembling at this point as all the COVID-19 symptom boxes were being ticked with this patient.
Allison has an underlying condition and she knew that if anyone in that clinic nestled in the Ewekoro woods needed to be extra careful, it was her.
Fear kicked in for Allison. And trepidation as well.
“In any case, let’s check', I told him. If it’s not, you are good to go. If it is, we treat you. I was really scared. I have asthma and at that time we knew that people with underlying conditions are at higher risk of having severe symptoms. That really freaked me out.
“At this point, I was thinking, what if I ask this guy to go and he turns out to be positive?”
As it turns out, she was right.
On February 27, 2020, Nigeria announced its first coronavirus case thanks to Allison’s instincts and quick thinking.
Afterwards, she was corralled into a life in quarantine alongside 40 other healthcare workers in the facility.
The COVID-19 they thought would never arrive on their shores, had berthed in Nigeria and starry-eyed Allison was the first doctor to come face-to-face with it.
“It felt very bleak while I was in isolation”, she recalls, a hand going through her well trimmed hair, with the other adjusting her glasses.
In isolation, Allison thought of death and voiced out a will for her close-knit family. She thought she had contracted the virus, given how close she had been with the Italian.
Life in isolation, she recalls, was a blur.
“I kept thinking of a thousand and one reasons why I would probably die. It’s the mind, you know. But I countered that with a hundred and ten reasons why I should live. The first two days felt like every other day.
“On the eight day, I woke up with a sore throat. And I thought ‘this is it, I’m legit dying now.’ And then I made a video...I can be extra o...in the video I was telling Nigerians: ‘this thing is real, it’s not a scam, please wear your mask. People are dying. I have a sore throat. I don’t know if I would make it out of here.' I was crying.
"And then I told my parents and family: ‘I love you’. I made a video will. I had support. If I didn’t have the kind of support I did, I don’t know what would have happened, because it was mostly dark thoughts. My parents were supportive. My family was supportive.
"I watched a lot of Netflix. I’m a fitness enthusiast, so I worked out a lot. I read about two novels. I also watched '93 Days', a movie on how Dr Stella Adadevoh diagnosed Nigeria's first Ebola case and paid with her life. That woman put her body on the line for all of us....
"I was hoping and praying I was wrong. It was the Medical Director that broke the news to me at 3am. I said there is no way this man will be calling me at 3am to give me good news. So when I picked, I said ‘Chief, Hey God. Chief, you want to tell me this thing is true? What did I do to you people? I freaked out for a bit and cried. And then he was like: ‘put yourself together, you have a team.’"
Laughing heartily now, Allison shares the story of how she wanted to run away from the clinic when it was confirmed that she had diagnosed Nigeria’s first COVID-19 case.
“When I thought this man could have COVID-19, the truth of the matter is that I wanted to bolt. Everything in me said ‘run’! I had to keep attending to him. I was afraid o! In the end, I thought to myself, why run? If I don’t do it, who would? It is my job…” her voice trails off now, glasses sitting pretty on the bridge of her nose as the clouds begin to darken, rainfall imminent in the Ikeja skyline; and the vehicular traffic snarling in the distance.
Allison recalls how much love she was shown and how much bile she received online when her name got out there as the first healthcare worker to diagnose the dreaded COVID-19 in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with some 200 million people.
“I had so much love. Mad love. I never believed that everybody can love one person like this. But then, you know how Nigeria is now?!! Those cabal people!!”, she chuckles heartily, holding her sides from cracking up way too much.
“Someone said: ‘see her hair sef. Is this one a doctor? What does this one know? This one does not really look intelligent. See this ugly Gorilla! She doesn’t sound intelligent. What does she know?
“Another person said ‘see her mouth. See how she’s talking. Just diagnose that you diagnosed. Anybody can do it nau.’
“When I saw these comments on Twitter and Nairaland….One day I woke up and someone had sent me a munched page of very bad comments. I couldn’t work out anymore.
"Like, I had to get therapy. I stopped posting on social media. I still haven’t gotten over it. I rarely post on social media to this day," she says, crestfallen. "I felt like I needed therapy."
“While I was in quarantine. I got a lot of goodwill calls from well meaning Nigerians, though…”
Once we were done chatting, Allison quickly clasps her surgical mask back on. “Corona is outside oooo!” she chimes as we walk to the parking lot; with lunch on our minds after an hour-long conversation.
Allison was readying herself to travel round the country yet again to tender to COVID-19 patients. She loves it on the frontlines. She loves to keep her countrymen and women safe; internet trolls or not.
It’s after all the life she has signed up for. The Hippocratic oath and all that jazz.