At 76, Bert Hewitt was unlike many of his age. Outgoing and adventurous, often when not at work, he goes climbing the rugged mountainside, hiking through deep jungles in the Himalayas.
In March last year, Bert Hewitt and his partner, Sandi Fischer, came to see Bhutan, a trip he would not forget for the rest of his life.
Following a river cruise along the Brahmaputra River in India, Hewitt and Sandi arrived in Paro on March 2, 2020. However, Hewitt wasn't in his best health after he began to feel ill in India.
He had lost his appetite, almost completely, he said. On the night of his arrival in the country, his guide and driver took him to the national referral hospital. "We thought it was just a stomach bug picked up while travelling in India."
The doctors gave him some antacid tablets and he returned to his hotel. "The following day, I felt somewhat better so we left for Punakha to witness the festival there. I still remember the festival, everyone was in their traditional costume," he said.
However, on their way back from Punakha, Hewitt's condition started to worsen. They went back to the hospital in Thimphu. This time Hewitt had his X-ray done and the doctors, looking at his lungs, suggested he might have tuberculosis. "That was impossible, I said, because I was already inoculated against TB," he said, adding that the doctor then thought it could possibly be Covid-19.
As they waited at the observation room for the results, a few hours later, test results from the Royal Centre for Disease Control came in. The culprit for Hewitt's sudden illness was the novel coronavirus.
Bert Hewitt thus became Bhutan's first confirmed case of Covid-19. "I couldn't believe that I'd tested positive for Covid. I had none of the usual symptoms — no cough, headache, or fever, but just a complete loss of appetite and extreme tiredness."
Thank you, Your Majesty
Hewitt was transferred to a four-bed isolation ward. Later that night, he was moved to the VIP room of the eye hospital at JDWNRH, now used as the Covid-19 isolation ward. "I later discovered that this move came as a result of the direct intervention of the King."
Given his pre-existing medical conditions, Hewitt was put on a ventilator. "I came this close to dying and was intubated in Bhutan," he said. His underlying health conditions heightened the risk.
What Hewitt heard at the isolation ward gave him the strength to fight the disease. Still recalling the events vividly, Hewitt said that the doctor put in charge to look after him, Dr Guru P Dhakal, came to him and said that His Majesty The King chose him personally to look after me.
"Hearing that gave me an enormous boost of confidence, to know that I wasn't only being looked after by the head of internal medicine but that the King was personally involved helped me tremendously."
He added that he was also relieved to know that Sandi was put in a room next to him.
On Friday, Hewitt, who stopped his carpentry work to talk to Kuensel, was happy to share what he could remember and thank His Majesty The King.
An ardent fan of Manchester United (an English premier league football club), Hewitt said he vaguely remembers watching a Manchester United match at the isolation ward.
Much to his surprise, one morning, a brand-new television set had appeared in his room. "I was astounded when I heard that the King had sent it so that I could watch the Manchester United game," he said. "The King had also sent me a pair of silk pyjamas, a cover for the bed, and a pillow. This again gave me an enormous boost psychologically to know that the King was personally involved."
Hewitt said that it was a rare experience for him to witness a King getting personally involved in looking after a patient, who was a complete stranger. "I just couldn't believe it. It was his involvement that saved my life,"
"As His Majesty turns 41 today, I'd like to wish His Majesty a very happy birthday, and would like to thank him personally for his involvement and kindness."
Fully recovered and into carpentry works, as a hobby, Hewitt is quick to compare. "If the United States had done a tenth as well, we'd have been in a much better position now," he said.
Directing the country's entire response to Covid-19, getting involved at a personal level, and making sure the virus did not spread, he said that His Majesty had shown exemplary leadership.
Thank you, Bhutan
Recalling his memories of Bhutan, Hewitt said, "I think I was very lucky to have fallen ill and hospitalised in Bhutan because of the wonderful treatment I got there. If this had happened somewhere else, I'd have probably died."
Remembering the picturesque view of Bhutan, he said it gave him an impression of Switzerland. "While inside the isolation room, on the hillside opposite, there was an array of white Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. I don't know why but that gave me an uplift as well in some way."
He added that, although he couldn't see much of Bhutan, everyone he met or came across seemed 'happy and extremely pleasant'.
Expressing his gratitude, Hewitt said the staff of the hotel where they had stayed were 'exceptionally kind'. "Concerned about my welfare, they'd get me ice cream and things that weren't on the menu so that it might tempt me to eat," he said. "The front desk staff and our driver and guide were extremely helpful. In my opinion, they went above and beyond the call of duty to help me."
"To the people of Bhutan, I'd like to say thank you for the cards and flowers you sent to me in hospital. You could so easily have thought of me as a harbinger of disease, but instead, you all expressed concern for the welfare of a complete stranger."
Hewitt has a message to the Bhutanese. "You are lucky to live in such a beautiful country, with excellent education and health systems under the leadership of a King, who has your best interests at heart."
Bert Hewitt today keeps his passion for hiking alive. He walks for about five miles daily. Besides solving crosswords in the New York Times, woodworking has been keeping the retired physicist busy at his home in Maryland, United States.
In late March last year, Hewitt was evacuated to the US in a chartered aircraft. For his passion for hiking and all the memories, he said he would love to return to Bhutan and complete his wish of hiking the trails in the Himalayan Kingdom.
"However, I'm 77, so it's unlikely that I'll return. After I left the hospital to recover at home, my daughter threatened to confiscate my passport so I couldn't travel."
Bhutan, Hewitt said, would remain in his memory. "I said to the doctor in Baltimore, that whatever they did to me in Bhutan, saved my life."