A family recalls the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, showing the great strides made in treating and preventing severe illness.
By Mariama Jallow
Muhammad Siddiqui died at Wake Forest Baptist hospital in May 2020. The 59-year-old had one of the first severe COVID-19 cases at the hospital.
His family say they believe that care provided to him in the early stages of the pandemic helped inform health care workers and hospitals as they learned about COVID-19 and established guidelines and protocol for treating patients. That is one of the many legacies Siddiqui left behind, according to his family.
Health care systems from across the state have learned throughout the pandemic —from the early cases to the more recent challenges posed by new variants.
“Across UNC Health, the pandemic was an emergency learning process, from ensuring that our providers had the right PPE to determining the best treatments,” said Alan Wolf, a UNC Health spokesman. “During the past 18 months, we’ve learned so much about how to treat these patients and save lives. The situation continues to evolve, with the Delta variant, for example. Our physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists and others continue to share best practices and adjust their processes, based on new data and science.”
Siddiqui’s son Muhammad Siddiqui, who has the same name as his father, and daughter Nitasha Siddiqui both describe their father as a kind, loving and caring parent. His family, who say Allah Yerhamo, or may God have mercy upon his soul, when mentioning their loved one, describe Siddiqui as someone with a beautiful soul, someone who could light up a room.
The son could not recall his father ever being angry or frustrated. Muhammad Siddiqui most of all, according to his children, was a deeply religious Muslim.
He has been much on their minds recently, not only because of the lingering pandemic but also because of the recent recollections of 9/11 on the 20th anniversary.
Siddiqui lived in New York where he was a public servant and an engineer who worked on bridges in New York.
His daughter and son do not know where exactly he contracted COVID. As his symptoms worsened, the family decided to move their father to Winston-Salem to the home of his son so he could be around loved ones. At the time, New York was a COVID-19 hotspot. Case counts in Winston-Salem and the rest of North Carolina were much lower. A couple of days later he was admitted to Wake Forest Baptist and that was the last time his family would see him.
Is it a cold? Something worse?
In March 2020, there were no COVID-19 vaccines, no monoclonal antibody treatments readily available, and still much mystery about the novel coronavirus. New York’s hospitals were filled with people fighting for their lives against the mysterious illness.
New York City went into lock-down, closing schools on March 16, 2020. Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order four days later causing businesses to close and introducing many to what seemed like an alien concept at the time —working from home.
Siddiqui’s daughter Nitasha was living with her father then, along with her mom and an aunt.
One day her father was fine. The next day he had a scratchy throat and thought a cold was coming on.
“We didn’t really think too much of it, we were like, ‘Oh it happens all the time, it’s still a cold, it’s nothing to worry about,’” Nitasha said. “For at least a good week, his symptoms were really mild, they just seemed like a regular cough like a chest cold.”
Since Siddiqui’s symptoms weren’t severe in the beginning, the family decided to use telehealth services instead of going to the hospital.
“The doctor’s telehealth call said I can’t confirm anything for you and since testing is so limited they were refraining from testing people who had mild symptoms,” Nitasha said. “Testing was reserved for people who seem to have very severe symptoms and need hospitalization.”
Nitasha explained that although his symptoms were mild, Siddiqui took them very seriously. He was wearing a mask around the house, he didn’t let his wife sleep next to him, he stayed in his room and wiped down everything he touched with a Clorox wipe.
“I remember us (her, her mother and aunt) saying, don’t worry about it, why are you doing so much? It’s just us,” Nitasha recalled. “My father would just say, ‘No, there’s no harm in being careful.’
“I think he knew at the back of his head that there were some odds out there.”
Though it’s evident now how quickly COVID-19 can spread, Siddiqui’s case was at a time when far less was known about the virus. Within a matter of days, Nitasha’s mother started feeling sick. She had a headache and a fever. Two days after that Nitasha had a fever, headache and severe body aches.
Her aunt, however, never got sick. They decided it must not be COVID because if it was, they assumed everyone in the household would have symptoms. At the time Nitasha and her family – along with much of the scientific and medical community – didn’t understand that some people could have COVID and be asymptomatic.
Now, they wonder whether that was the case with their aunt.
This is when Nitasha’s younger sister and brother Muhammad Siddiqui decided that they should drive down to North Carolina and stay in the younger Siddiqui’s Winston-Salem house because cases were only getting worse in New York.
“We made the decision in one day, packed two weeks worth of things and decided to go down to Winston,” Nitasha said. “I made sure my parents had their prescriptions, the whole time, we really thought that we were on the up, things were getting better.”
Nitasha remembers her father talking to his doctor during the car ride down, saying he was feeling so much better that his cough was the only thing left. He had more energy and his doctor said it was good news. The doctor prescribed antibiotics and said that he should feel better soon.
To protect others from falling ill, the son left his Winston-Salem home to his father and the family from New York to quarantine in until they recovered. He, his wife and toddler stayed with his wife’s family in High Point.
“The night before we arrived, my father spiked a fever, a really high fever, we didn’t understand what to do,” said Nitasha. “That was the point where we had to really confront the reality that this was not normal cold, and all of us are sick at the same time. The odds of that just are too slim for it not to be COVID and that was a really tough reckoning.”
Coming to America
The Siddiqui family’s story bridges two continents.
Originally from Karachi, Pakistan, Siddiqui arrived in the United States more than 25 years ago after he won a place in the annual visa lottery to come here. He settled in New York where he started his family.
“I remember those first years, we lived in Long Island and he was working in a gas station, doing all sorts of odd jobs to keep things going until he was fortunate enough to get a job at an engineering firm,” Siddiqui’s son, a financial consultant living in Winston-Salem, said.
“As an engineer, a lot of his colleagues from New York would move to the Middle East or other places where they got very lucrative jobs,” said Muhammad, his son.
Siddiqui was not one of those engineers. He always put the needs of his children over his career goals.
“I remember starting high school and I was fortunate to get into one of the more competitive schools in New York,” his son said. “My dad decided to stay here, give up the money and keep this government job that didn’t pay that much, but was stable. His kids’ education was more important than any financial motivation he had, I’m truly grateful for that. That one decision to not seek his own financial advancement, instead, invest in his kids, changed the trajectory of our family.”
Siddiqui’s son also said that his father was involved in his community mosque, and when Muhammad Siddiqui went to college he followed in his father’s footsteps by getting involved in the Muslim Student Life Association.
His son Siddiqui said he sometimes grappled with his Muslim identity, especially in a post 9/11 world, but his father made it easy. He made everything easier for his children.
In 2001, Siddiqui worked across from the World Trade Center and his son remembers how the family could not reach him right after the attack on the towers. Almost like a flashbulb memory, Siddiqui recalled that his father had to walk all the way across Manhattan to escape the terror flowing through the city. Eventually, he caught a taxi and finally made it home late at night.
“It’s hard to think that he survived such a tragedy like 9/11 but COVID-19 took his life,” his son said.
The battle at Wake Forest Baptist
The elder Siddiqui was only at his son’s house for two days before he started experiencing breathing problems and Nitasha rushed him to the emergency room.
“I had the mildest symptoms so I had to take on the role of being the caretaker and look out for everyone,” Nitasha recalled. “This was really hard to do when you’re sick, and also never encountered something like that before. The first time I took him to the hospital, the doctor said everything’s fine. Second time we went they said it was time to admit him. I was the last person who saw my dad in person, before he went into the hospital.”
“This is when the sort of saga began,” said Siddiqui’s son.
His son said that since this was very early on in the pandemic, Wake Baptist didn’t have many protocols for COVID patients. Now, there are medications such as dexamethasone, a steroid that can be given to COVID patients early on which may prevent them from ending up on a ventilator. There’s more understanding now that patients can receive oxygen from a face mask instead of needing a breathing machine. There are monoclonal antibodies which have proven to reduce the need for hospitalization for COVID patients, if given soon after the onset of symptoms.
“Even something as simple as getting a CAT scan was debated for weeks with my father because they were not sure if COVID would have been transmitted to the doctors and nurses,” said his son Siddiqui “He was one of the patients that a lot of protocols had to be innovated for.”
The health care community had a short time and a very steep learning curve when treating COVID-19 patients. Those early patients taught hospital workers a lot, including different techniques for treating patients with respiratory issues in the ICU.
“In the early days of the pandemic, healthcare providers were learning new information day over day regarding how the virus was spread,” Tatyana Kelly, vice president of Planning/Strategy and Member Services at North Carolina Health Care Association, said in an email. “Prior to COVID, masks were worn as needed for specific situations by physicians, nurses and other direct caregivers, but not always by employees who had occasional interactions with patients to bring them food or to clean their room. Eventually, mask protocols for all employees interacting with COVID-19 patients were clarified and standardized.”
Isolation protocols, mental health support for medical staff, testing availability and protocols were all challenges that medical staff were facing when the pandemic first started, she said. Hospitals were going through supplies faster than they ever predicted, previous protocols had to be amended. Kelly explained that medical teams learned that proning (putting patients onto their stomachs) was helpful for many COVID patients.
“Patients who were diagnosed with COVID-19 early on in the pandemic, whether or not they were admitted to a hospital, contributed to the ability of the state and nation to gather data, and outcomes of various interventions so that the medical community could better understand who was most at risk and what treatments were helpful,” Kelly said.
An early fallen soldier
“I remember my father ended up having a severe neurological reaction as well, and had a hemorrhage in his brain. This was early, when I would call his physicians and I would read the same medical journal articles that I was reading, before they were even peer-reviewed, in the pre-publication databases,” said his son Siddiqui. “I would talk to them about it and they’re like, ‘yeah, you know about as much as we do right now because this is how new this thing is.”
Siddiqui was in the hospital from the end of March until early May when he died. His family was not able to visit him in person the entire time. It was almost two months of Zoom calls and communicating with doctors and nurses about their father.
Siddiqui’s son mentioned that in the Islamic tradition, there are prophetic narrations or Hadiths said when someone passes away due to a plague or perhaps, a pandemic, the deceased is given the status of Shaheed which denotes a martyr. That, he said, has given him solace while processing his loss.
We are still battling the pandemic
North Carolina has not yet reached the other side of the pandemic. Nonetheless, there has been much advancement in the fight against COVID-19.
Siddiqui was one of 12 siblings able to come to the United States and help many in his extended family.
“I remember his death affected people in ways that I didn’t expect, which really made me appreciate my father and realize that maybe I didn’t have full appreciation for who he was,” his son recalled.
“Our family is doing okay. I mean, again, he took such good care of us, he raised kids that were responsible enough to ensure that my mom and everything else is taken care of,” he added.
Unlike a year-a-half ago, vaccinations are readily available and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anyone 12 and older can get a vaccine. Nonetheless, the extremely contagious Delta variant has caused a fourth surge of cases, once again training health care systems and increasing calls for the unvaccinated to get a COVID vaccine.
“COVID was a war, an ongoing battle that my father experienced, he was in the frontlines of this war being a public servant,” Siddiqui recalled. “He was a fallen soldier and my family has been left to pick up the broken pieces of his sacrifice and in that sense I think he deserves that honor.”