My journey to death and back – TV producer Mfundi Vundla shares his resurrection story

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My dear chommie,

I knocked on death’s door three times. Believe me, it was not a pretty sight. I’m 76 years old and people in my age group or older are felled by heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and buckets of other chronic ailments.

February last year I’m diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus.
This after I complained to my cardiologist about chest pains – a series of them – especially when I was eating. My heart doctor dismissed my complaints, insisting I was chasing shadows. Making things up.

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I put my foot down. Demanded he refer me to a gastroenterologist. Chommie, that’s a fancy word for a doctor who specialises in pushing a small camera down the oesophagus and into the stomach. As the camera moves south it takes images of growths on tissue walls.Samples of suspicious growths are cut for later examination: a determination as to whether the growths are malignant or benign.

This procedure is known as a biopsy.

The voyage of discovery starts with a painful injection into a vein on my left hand. This immediately puts me to sleep. I wake up the next morning in a ward and Dr M sits on the side of my bed.

He is holding an X-ray negative with shots of my oesophagus and stomach.

He starts with my stomach. There is nothing to be worried about, he informs me. He pushes northwards to the point where the stomach meets the oesophagus.

“There,” he says, pointing at what to me looks like a sore. “That’s cancer.”

He explains the tumour has narrowed the oesophagus, hence the pain in my chest when I am swallowing. The confirmation of cancer in my body hits me for a six! The first thought is how long do I have to live? I’m numb. I’m afraid. Confused and angry.

Later a nurse arrives and informs me I have a meeting with Dr M the next day. “Bring your wife,” she says as she exits. Why? I conclude in my overactive brain there will be more news like: get your affairs in order. Make sure your will is airtight.

Dr M informs me and my wife, Karen, that my cancer is common among African males from the Eastern Cape. Big deal, I tell myself. Cancer is cancer, no matter what neighbourhood or postal code it originates from. He goes on to assure me that cancer is not a death sentence. It can be cured. Am I relieved? No.

Dr M refers me to a clinic in Parktown where I will receive “world-class” treatment. Yeah right. I’ve now descended to not trusting Dr M even when he informs me that the cancer is isolated and therefore treatable.

In a day or so, I begin my journey. My destination: the cancer ward. Upon arrival, I check in. Chommie, you’d think you are in the large rooms at the department of home affairs. The room is packed. Every seat is occupied by people sick with a range of cancers.

A blood test is done. I’m advised that in 10 minutes the oncologist, Dr W, will review the results. An oncologist is a cancer doctor, chommie. Some are specialists. There are three areas of oncology – radiology, medical oncology and surgical oncology.

Dr W is a specialist medical oncologist. He has a genial personality. He explains that I will be receiving a combination of two treatments – chemotherapy on Mondays and radiation therapy five days a week. The duration of the treatment is six weeks.

Dr W goes on to explain that the goal of chemotherapy and radiation therapy is the complete eradication of the cancer. In the event it is not eliminated, palliative treatment will kick in. This is medication to ameliorate pain while waiting for the appointment with death. Am I a dead man walking?

My wife and I take in Dr W’s frank assessment of my situation. To lighten the moment Dr W inquires whether I still have something in the tank – creative juices to write another TV series. My answer is a short one: if you keep me alive and help me defeat cancer, I will. He smiles.

The following Monday I begin chemotherapy treatment. The cancer ward is huge. It’s a full house. On two sides of the ward are comfortable chairs to lie or sit on.

The majority of the people in the room have drips attached to veins in their arms. An African woman directly in front of me has tubes in the base of her breast transmitting chemicals into her body.

Her breast has been removed. We nod silent greetings of solidarity. A friendly nurse pierces a vein in my left arm and the chemotherapy treatment begins.

For just over two hours, chemicals enter my body through the vein. I’m a rookie. There are individuals in the cancer ward who’ve been at the receiving end of chemotherapy for a while. Some have become friends.

Diagonally across from me is a Muslim woman. She is chomping down samoosas neatly packed in a Tupperware container. She’s on a roll: “If Allah wants me to go, I will not resist. I will just go.”

Chommie: I did not sign up for unsolicited broadcasts from individuals who’ve made peace with death. My mission in the cancer ward is defeating the monster.

As the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, so eloquently advises: “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Death is to be fought, not resigned to.

Monday is a double day as we say in my business: two hours of chemotherapy, followed soon thereafter by 15 minutes of radiation treatment. The latter involves me lying on my back as a machine overhead emits radiation which targets the tumour on the oesophagus.

The radiologist instructs me to take a series of deep breaths. These must be held for 10 or more seconds while the radiation works its mojo. Not an easy task it seems. My lungs are not that great due to a nicotine habit I had in the past and years of enjoying the holy herb.

The next time I see the Muslim woman, she’s addressing the captive audience in a life and death struggle against cancer. I’m armed against her unsolicited broadcasts. I enter the cancer ward armed with Bose noise-cancelling headphones. As chemicals are being pumped into my veins I’m listening to Miles Davis, Simphiwe Dana, Frédéric Chopin, Claude Debussy and Cassandra Wilson.

In my second week of treatment I start getting sick. Really sick. Constant fatigue, headaches, nausea, lack of appetite. General malaise. My body is not mine any more. It is occupied territory. Completely taken over by chemicals.

I feel like the stuff that issues from number two.

Radiation and chemo is not all I’m subjected to. I also swallow Stilpane tablets at least three times a day. Nausea tablets, sleeping pills, diabetes tablets and hypertension medication.

My body is a war zone, with at least 10 drugs simultaneously interacting with each other.
I’m losing weight. I went in at 101kg, now I’m down to 80kg. I live on liquid foods as I am unable to swallow solids. The hospital food is lousy anyway. Outsourced to a food company at variance with accepted culinary standards.

Early one morning at home, I wake up and head for the bathroom. I then decide I do not need to go to the bathroom. That’s the thing with cancer, it plays games with the mind.

I turn around. Get dizzy and I fall, with my neck landing on the solid oak headboard. I struggle to lift myself up. I’ve added another problem with the fall. I’ve injured a nerve in my neck. The result is I’m unable to raise my right hand.

I’m readmitted to hospital. A neurosurgeon, who has been informed through the grapevine about my condition, walks into my room in the cancer ward.

He greets me patronisingly: “Hello, reverend.”

I politely indicate that I’m not a priest.

He examines me. I read his face and I’m convinced nothing good is going to come out of this. He then informs me he will have to cut me. Surgery is the only way I will be able to regain the use of my right hand.

He then lobs a threat in my direction: should I choose not to follow his suggestion, I will probably end up in a wheelchair for the rest of my life!

I inform Dr W of the discussion with the neurosurgeon. His response is: “We are fighting cancer. That’s the priority. I will arrange for an occupational therapist to treat that nerve conservatively. In time you will regain the use of your arm.”

You have no idea how elated I was, chommie. To be honest, when I lost control of my right arm, I briefly forgot about the cancer. I wondered: will I ever swing a golf club again? Will I ever walk the fairways with my buddies, Dikgang and Vincent, and my brother, Peter?

In my third week of treatment while at home, things take a turn for the worse: the nausea is completely out of control.

I’m having trouble breathing. I’m readmitted to hospital and a CT scan is conducted. A sound of alarm issues from the lips of the man operating the scan.

I request an explanation. He informs me that two embolisms are lodged in my lungs. It’s a condition known as pulmonary embolism. Embolism is a fancy word for a blood clot, chommie. Clots can lead to strokes, heart attacks or death.

I’m urgently whisked to the intensive care unit (ICU). Seems to me I am now becoming a regular tenant of the room for people walking in the margins of death. The head of the ICU, Dr T, a tall man with the physique of a rugby player, examines me and puts me on a course of blood thinners. This in an effort to eliminate the blood clots. The cancer in my body is issuing blood gooey in texture. This is the source of the clots, he explains.

Things continued getting worse. By the fourth week, I am frail. I’m not strong enough to walk on my own. I reach the radiation unit through the use of a wheel chair. The nausea, headaches, fatigue and listlessness are unremitting.

Early one morning while in the ICU I hear people singing in whispers. I ring my emergency bell and ask the attending nurse what’s going on. A prayer meeting is in progress. The penny drops. These ICU nurses look after seriously ill people. They take strain and use prayer as a source of strength. A few days later I’m discharged.

My son, Charlie, his wife, Alicja, and my grandson, Aviwe, move into our residence. An act of solidarity and support. My illness is a source of extreme anxiety to my immediate family. My wife is taking strain.

My immune system is in a perilous state. My grandson infects me with a virus. Its source? The playground at school. I develop breathing problems once again.

There are traces of blood in my vomit. Am I in transition to the world of the ancestors? My son drives me to the emergency room at a Morningside clinic.

The nurses take one look at me and explain to those ahead of me in the queue that I need prompt attention. In addition to my breathing problems, my blood pressure is sky high. In a few minutes I’m stable. An ambulance transports me to the ICU at the Parktown clinic.

The trip by ambulance is horrific. My breathing problems resume. Making matters worse, chommie, the inside of the ambulance is narrow and claustrophobic. Making things worse still is the ambulance attendant in my face instructing me to relax.

Waiting for me at the Parktown clinic are Karen and Charlie. I’m rushed to the ICU and a team of three nurses and an emergency doctor attend to me. I am extremely unruly in my fight with death. Nurses struggle to keep me in bed as I continually slide off.

Between all the chaos, I make a passionate plea to the nurses. Save my life. From outside the ward the emergency doctor looking in is giving instructions to the three nurses.

She stares at me, making an okay sign. I reciprocate.

Next thing, a box-like plastic contraption is placed over my nose and mouth. My breathing problems ease and I am kept alive through the night by oxygen and other medication. The following morning, the emergency doctor is making her rounds. I thank her and the three nurses for saving my life.

The viral pneumonia is neutralised after five days in the ICU. The head of the ICU informs me that a more seriously ill patient needs my bed. He discharges me.

One afternoon, sick from radiation treatment, I am again on a wheelchair. A nurse’s aide is transporting me to my car. I am wearing a beanie and a Covid-19 mask. I’m incognito.

My eyes catch sight of an established film producer waiting in line for treatment. It crosses my mind to say hello to her. I decide not to as I am averse to invading her privacy.

The chemotherapy and radiation treatments come to an end after six weeks. Dr W, the medical oncologist, hopes the treatment has dealt a knock-out blow to the cancer.

I spend the next six weeks at home, sick as a dog. It takes more than six weeks, chommie, for all the drugs and radiation to leave your system. In tribute to my wife’s support throughout the ordeal, I tell a friend calling me from the US that I now understand the marriage vow “for better or for worse”. It exists for a reason.

Then one day, I discover I can swallow certain solid foods. My morale improves. The day of reckoning arrives. I enter the endoscopy centre at the Parktown clinic.

In no time, I am in a theatre where two African surgeons wait to examine me. Their mission is to establish the efficacy of the treatment I’ve received. Has the cancer been eliminated or has it spread throughout the body? My anxiety level is sky high.

A nasty tasting solution is deposited in my throat to numb the nerves as they tend to reflexively spit out the camera as it makes its way down the oesophagus.

The anaesthetist injects me with a solution which puts me to sleep. A camera zeroes in on the tumour and a sample is taken for examination.

An hour later, while lying on a bed in the cancer ward, the anaesthetist walks in. He reports: “The tumour looks good.” He exits. I do not know what to make of this.

I wait. Then, the head surgeon walks in and reports: “No cancer.”
My wife and I take a victory lap. We spend five days in Istanbul, Turkey. We take in the Islamic art in the two famous mosques in the city. We shop, hang out in night clubs, take a boat trip down the Bosphorus and sample the exquisite Turkish cuisine.

Thereafter we are in New York in the US. We watch Broadway shows: the Michael Jackson musical, MJ; and Piano Lesson starring my mate, Samuel L Jackson. We also have lunch with our friend, Lynn Nottage, a three-time Pulitzer prize-winner for drama.

Two days later, I’m burning rubber, driving a soft top Mustang. Our destination: the DeSoto Hotel in downtown Savannah, Georgia. I’m a history buff, chommie.

On my bucket list are the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and North Carolina. We are visiting the Gala people, descendants of freed African slaves who jealously cling to their African roots and culture.

Fast forward six months. I enter the Parktown clinic. A biopsy is conducted again to determine whether the cancer has indeed been eliminated.

I also undergo a CT scan – a deep dive X-ray examining internal organs – of the chest, lungs, pancreas, kidneys, colon and stomach.

To my delight I get the all clear.

I am now back in the saddle, chommie. Looking forward to producing two feature films later this year and a TV series next year.

Vundla is a television and feature film producer.

– Citypress

Photo credit: lucky nxumalo


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