COVID-19: How rugby legend Broadhurst Cona beat COVID-19
In his illustrious career, Broadhurst (Broadness) Cona learnt to fight hard on the rugby field and never give up until the final whistle. It is this same spirit that the rugby legend from Langa in Cape Town brought to another fight – surviving COVID-19 as a 73-year-old.
Cona laughs heartily when we ask about his name confusion- he is often referred to as Broadness.
“You see. That’s an Apartheid fault. I was named Broadhurst by my father. But when it came to applying for my ‘dompas’ someone decided to misspell my name or deliberately refer to me as ‘Broadness’,” he says with a chuckle.
He was a prop in the black SA rugby squad, SAARB, in the 70s and played against the Italian national team abroad and against France in South Africa.
Cona tested positive for COVID-19 three months ago.
Seated on the sofa in his daughter Kholiswa’s three-bedroom house in Langa, Cona tells Spotlight about his struggle with the virus and his rugby-playing days.
Black-and-white pictures of the black SA rugby team take pride of place in the wall unit while the green and gold Springbok blazer hangs next to the curtains on the wall. As a black rugby player, Cona started with the Flying Eagles rugby club in Nyanga, played in the SAARB national team and later also the Western Province Rugby Board. So proud was former president Nelson Mandela of the Springboks’ win of the Rugby World Cup in 1995, that he later that year invited black and coloured rugby legends to a gala dinner at Nasrec in Johannesburg where they were honoured with Springbok blazers.
His blazer is one of Cona’s prized possessions.
“That’s me right there, the big guy being flanked by Eric Majala and Peter Mkhatha. Those were sensational rugby players,” Cona says, pointing at one of the portraits.
“We played rugby not for fame and fortune but we had a great passion for it. Back then, there were no magnificent facilities or state of the art equipment to train with. We were also up against the harsh Apartheid laws that divided us. As blacks, we played against each other. We had our own league that was different from the coloured leagues and white leagues. But we enjoyed the sport,” he recalls.
Cona says he showed some signs of brilliance from the moment he was recruited by the Flying Eagles rugby team in Nyanga in the 1970s.
Having been born and raised in Simon’s Town, his family was forcefully moved to Gugulethu township in 1965 under the Group Areas Act. It was in Gugulethu that he developed the love for rugby.
“In Simon’s Town we played soccer only. But in Gugulethu and Nyanga, both rugby and soccer were dominant. I ended up playing both sports until people told me how good I was in rugby,” he says.
Some of the greatest moments of his rugby career that will forever be etched in his mind, Cona says, include touring Italy with the SAARB squad in 1974 and playing against the French national team during their tour to South Africa the following year.
Cona says it makes him proud to see the transformation that has since happened in rugby.
“We now have the first ever black captain who lifted the World Cup last year. It is a great achievement even though it is not yet uhuru. But I can talk until the workers return home,” he says with a giggle.
Lucky to be alive
Back to his COVID-19 journey, Cona says he counts himself lucky to be alive as some of his peers who tested positive for COVID-19 were not so lucky.
“I could have been added to the virus’ casualties and be six feet under now,” he says “but I told myself that it was not yet time for me to meet my Creator. As I lay in that hospital bed, I told myself that I would fight this virus tooth and nail, just like I fought opposing defenders on the rugby field.”
Initially Cona says there were “just no symptoms whatsoever”. The virus “caught him “off-guard”.
Having been diagnosed with hypertension and gout in 2007, he had gone to a local doctor in Gugulethu for a check-up. Cona says he lost his appetite.
“After running some checks, the doctor gave me two injections and some medication. Indeed, within a few hours the appetite was back and I could eat normally again,” he says.
But, he says, a concerned friend insisted that he goes for a COVID-19 test at a local clinic just to be certain it was not COVID-19. Cona had a fever and started coughing but dismissed it thinking it will pass.
His friend, however, insisted that he go for a test.
“At the time I thought nothing of it (the fever). In fact, I wasn’t scared to go for the test at all. I even remember jokingly telling him how he could ask a man (like me) who is as fit as a fiddle to go for a COVID-19 test. But deep down I knew that this virus attacks the elderly badly, especially those of us with underlying illnesses. I couldn’t wait to get the tests done and the results to come back negative,” he recalls.
After some tests, nurses at the local KTC day hospital told Cona that he had a chest infection. He was put on a drip immediately.
“I remember all those people standing on top of me in all their PPEs. It started being a scary site, especially when that swab was inserted through my nostril. It was very uncomfortable,” he says.
Nurses then told him he would be transferred to the nearby Heideveld day hospital for further tests.
At the Heideveld day hospital Cona heard he had tested positive for COVID-19.
He says his world came crashing down as the doctor called him aside and broke the news to him.
Just keep going
Cona was admitted to Groote Schuur Hospital where he was on oxygen treatment for five days.
“In the bed next to mine was this old man who was also in his 70s. I later realised he was also a rugby legend from Langa. We started getting on like a house on fire and I was glad to have met a peer whom I could talk to. Just like me, he also had a positive energy and the will to survive. But to my shock, I woke up in the early hours one morning to an empty bed next to mine. When I enquired from the nurses, they told me that he had just succumbed to the virus and his body had been taken away. It started sinking in that I could be next. Every morning the mortuary personnel would come and collect a body,” he says.
At that point, he sats, he made the conscious decision that he didn’t want to die.
But it was a difficult journey, and he appreciated every day that he woke up in his bed, says Cona.
He considers the three weeks at the hospital as the worst of his life.
“And I was in a lot of pain. From the toes right up, my entire body was numb. I survived on Panado every day to ease the pain. I also became tired from having to sleep all day and during the night. That was when I decided to start doing some exercises around the ward. I could see that laying in that bed all day and feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to heal me. I needed to stay positive, and I was reminded of my coach’s words during our walking sessions that ‘when you feel tired, don’t stop, just keep going’,” he says.
Cona says he was transferred to four different wards during his hospital stay.
“Every time you recover, you get moved to a different ward until the time doctors feel you are now ready to be discharged. I remember how excited I was the day doctors told me that I had made a remarkable recovery and that I would be discharged the following day. It was as if I was dreaming,” he says.
But to his shock, the doctor told him that while he was being discharged from the hospital, he wouldn’t be going straight home but to the Lagoon Beach Hotel where he would be quarantined for 11 days.
Despite his fears, Cona says life at the hotel was “much better”.
“There were no groans and moans from patients in opposite beds and the smell of hospital medication. Instead, I was placed in my own room with a TV, shower and a nice warm bed. I could go out to the balcony and watch the breath-taking views of the sea. The only downside was the fact that I had no visitors and even the meals were just dropped at the door. On the last day, a doctor came and checked my temperature and declared me fit to return home. I was overjoyed,” he says.
Death in the family
While his own battle with COVID-19 is over, Cona says he is lying awake at night following the loss of his only son, Morgan Cona, who succumbed to the virus.
Morgan was admitted to a hospital in the Eastern Cape last month, and Cona recalls how he encouraged his son to be strong.
He says he hoped that Morgan would recover. “I remember telling him ‘you will beat it. If I could defeat it, so can you’. But it wasn’t to be. It’s still difficult for me to come to terms with his death. But I guess we have to accept God’s will,” says Cona.
He says he defied doctor’s orders not to travel and took a bus to Queenstown in the Eastern Cape to attend his son’s funeral.
Cona is among 265 077 recoveries from COVID-19 recorded in the country by Sunday 26 July.