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A true survivor – Michael Rojales’ 72-day battle against COVID in Melbourne

Heartbreaking story of a Filipino family that has been stricken by the coronavirus in Melbourne.

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Jason Cordi
Jason Cordi
Editor-in-Chief, The Philippine Times

A Filipino family from Berwick has been devastated by COVID-19 since late March, where three family members contracted the virus. 46-year-old Michael Rojales was in an induced coma for two weeks at Monash Clayton Hospital and relied on a ventilator to breath, while his wife Rachel also battled the virus in hospital. His 84-year-old mother-in-law Gely Costanilla unfortunately succumbed to the virus.

In an interview with The Philippine Times, Michael expressed that the virus nearly killed him, and that it felt like “being trapped underwater” after spending a total of 72 days in hospital fighting for his life.

Michael Rojales almost lost his life due to the coronavirus

It all started when Michael returned to Melbourne after attending a conference in South Africa. He stated that he noticed that after landing in Melbourne on 19 March, there was a woman who was removed from the plane by people wearing full PPE. He was not informed that there was a confirmed case of COVID-19 on his flight.

Michael slowly but painfully pulled through.

Two days after his arrival in Melbourne he began to feel a temperature and relentless cough. Michael went to a fever clinic on 22 March and the next day was told he was positive for coronavirus. Three days later, he was admitted to Casey Hospital after struggling to breath. On 29 March, which was his fourth day in hospital, he was moved to intensive care at Monash Medical Centre in Clayton, and put into an induced coma.

While Michael was in a coma, there were times when the doctors predicted that he wouldn’t survive. He however woke from his coma after two weeks on Easter Sunday (12 April), was cleared of the virus on 26 April, and finally returned home on 5 June.

Meanwhile, Michael’s wife Rachel tested positive for coronavirus on 27 March and was admitted to hospital three days later. She was later discharged on 5 April.

Loving mother gone too soon

While Michael was in an induced coma, his 84-year-old mother-in-law, ‘Nanay’ Gely Costanilla was admitted to Casey Hospital with coronavirus. After six days in hospital, she unfortunately lost her battle against the deadly virus on 6 April.

Nanay Gely acquired the coronavirus from her nephew, and sadly passed away two and a half weeks later.

Rachel was able to speak to her mother on the phone moments before she passed away. Rachel said, “The nurse was holding my mum’s hand and the phone was on speaker. I was just saying: ‘Mum – I love you. Be strong’. Then I said to her: ‘Let me pray for you’.”

Gely Costanilla was the 10th person to die from coronavirus in Victoria during the pandemic.

“As soon as I said that, she just passed away. She heard my voice. She closed her eyes. And when she opened them, she was with God.”

Michael was made aware of the passing of his mother-in-law one week after waking from his coma. “When they told me, I could not believe that happened.”

“The horrible thing about corona is that people die without their loved ones beside them.”

The hospital informed the family that as Gely had coronavirus, her body could not be held for too long, and she needed to be cremated.

The funeral of Gely Costanilla was delayed until Michael was well enough to attend. He was allowed to go out of hospital for a few hours to attend Gely’s funeral on 8 May. Due to coronavirus restrictions, only ten people were able to attend the funeral, which was live streamed through Facebook and YouTube for their extended family and friends.

A close friend of the family named Sheryl Faustino shared these words to The Philippine Times: “Mommy Gely was a very strong and faithful woman I’ve known. She has very soft heart as well. She is fashionable since she was young and till the day she was taken from this world. As a person she is very loving and helpful to others. At her age she is very healthy. I remember my last conversation with her when she was in hospital, she was strong and said ‘don’t forget to pray for Michael and Rachel for fast healing’. She sometimes looked after my two daughters when me and my husband went out together. We will never forget her and she will always remain in our hearts.”

Nanay Gely Costanilla with her granddaughter Megan.

“I have received the miracle of life”

“God is good and faithful” – Michael Rojales

The pastor has referred to his survival as a miracle and believes that prayers for his survival were answered. He says that the experience that his family has been through has his strengthened faith in family, friends and church. They are the ones who rallied to pray for him after his wife was told to prepare to say goodbye.

Although he says he has frustrations about what happened, he ultimately feels strength in his belief that God gave him another chance to live and share the gospel. “I intend to make the most of it,” he told The Philippine Times.

Michael Rojales on the road to recovery.

He believes that the fact that he is an asthmatic is a reason why was severely affected by the virus.

Michael shares that he looks forward to being able to walk again without crutches. “Everyday I’m getting better. Corona impacted my lungs, my kidneys, my blood and my nervous system. My left leg is still healing from nerve damage and muscle weakness.”

Michael’s doctor said that it may take between 18 months to 2 years for his nerves to heal.

Michael’s ultimate plea is for everyone to follow the rules, as for those who test positive, this really could be a life and death situation. “This is real,” he says.

Gely Costanilla and Rachel, Megan (daughter), and Michael Rojales last year

The family who migrated from Las Pinas to Australia 25 years ago are deeply connected with Filipinos in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs. Michael Rojales is a pastor at the Berwick Church of Christ.

Their friend, Chaplain Norminda Forteza shared with The Philippine Times that she was shocked when she found out that the family was struck by COVID-19. “They are a caring compassionate family always ready to help people in need. Pastor Michael has been assisting the AFCS provide emergency material support through the Berwick Church of Christ Food Ministry. This proves COVID-19 is deadly and it can harm anyone — even the faithful.”

Michael’s message to the Filipino community:

It’s a weird feeling being told you have corona. But the coronavirus is very real. Stay safe and healthy. That is to follow the restrictions and maintain good hygiene. We can “flatten the curve” by social distancing, washing our hands, and wearing masks where appropriate. We would not want what happened to us to happen to anyone else. Corona is horrible. And just because you don’t show any symptoms, doesn’t mean you don’t have it. Imagine a symptomatic person infecting a high risk person (such as Lolo and Lola).

WATCH: Michael Rojales has been featured on a Victorian Government ad campaign, showing real Victorians that have survived and lost family members.

Jason Cordi
Jason Cordi
Editor-in-Chief, The Philippine Times

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