Three days after his Georgia side played South Africa in July, in a warm-up for the Lions series, Levan Maisashvili tested positive for Covid and was rushed to hospital. His lungs had collapsed and his body was engulfed by deadly bacteria. He expected to die.
Doctors were forced to put the 51-year-old into an induced coma for a month. They gave the stricken head coach of the East European nation a one per cent chance of survival. His family and friends, players, staff, employers and supporters feared the worst. His life hung by a thread.
But in defiance of the bleak prognosis, Maisashvili recovered. He refused to surrender to the virus. Two months after being admitted to Morningside Hospital in Johannesburg in a critical condition, he emerged from the nearby Milpark Hospital — where he had been transferred for specialist care — and made an emotional return to Tbilisi.
Georgia coach Levan Maisashvili tested positive for COVID and his life hung by a thread
Speaking to Sportsmail from his home, Maisashvili recounts the frightening episode.
‘I had this feeling that I would die,’ he says. ‘Everything happened very quickly for me but not for my friends, for my managers, family and doctors. They spent every day for 40 days waiting, thinking I would die because all of my body had collapsed.
‘I tested positive for Covid on July 5. Our team doctor, Nutsa Shamatava, sent me to hospital, because I had a temperature. For the first three or four days, it wasn’t difficult for me, but after that it was very bad. From July 8, I don’t remember anything until August 10.
‘On July 14, they transferred me to Milpark Hospital because my condition was so bad. I was on an oxygen machine and from that time, I spent one month sleeping. I don’t remember a thing.
Maisashvili’s life was turned upside down three days after his side faced South Africa in July
While in a coma, Maisashvili was unaware of the desperate extent of his predicament
‘The doctors who were looking after me were excellent and they did everything, but three or four times, they said I had just one per cent chance to survive. My lungs had fully collapsed, I had bacteria in my blood and I had fungus in my blood. Every bacteria has antibiotics which you can use to fight against it, but one sort of bacteria is terrible and I had that in my body; in my blood, in my lungs, everywhere.
‘They had to give me drugs which made me sleep, because I was connected to an oxygen machine. The doctors said to me they were blowing with 100 per cent oxygen but my blood oxygen saturation level was lower than 80 per cent, which is catastrophic.’
While in a coma, Maisashvili was unaware of the extent of his predicament, but when he came out of it, the ordeal was far from over. He was shocked to find tubes sticking out of his nose and throat. He was even more shocked to discover that his weight had plummeted from 13st 5lb to 9st 6lb.
‘When I saw my legs and face, I didn’t recognise myself,’ he says. ‘At that time, I could only stand up with the support of my physio. I did one step forward, one step back then I would sit back with a high heart rate. But I said to myself, “If I am going to fight for my life, I will be crazy about it”.’
There was a COVID outbreak in the Georgia camp despite strict protocols being followed
He is still moved when he recounts all the support he received. Maisashvili describes the doctors, nurses and physios as ‘the biggest friends I have’. And his union ensured he was never alone, even after the team flew home without him.
‘Every day my doctor, Nutsa, was with me,’ he says. ‘After that, the union sent vice-president Nika Alavidze, who stayed for two weeks when I was sleeping all the time. After that, my team manager, Leqso Iordanishvili, spent all the time with me.
‘Every day from 11am until 8pm, he was sitting with me, speaking and gently encouraging me. I cannot explain how important that was. Every time I was walking three or four steps, he would say, “Oh Levan, that is so good”.
‘I had big support from the union and the president, Ioseb Tkemaladze, from my family, friends and also from people I don’t know. When I started looking at my Facebook and messages again, there were a huge number of messages. There was a lot of support from other countries. Rugby doesn’t have nationality; rugby men are rugby men.’
Maisashvili looks back on his near-death experience without any bitterness about what happened in that turbulent period before the South Africa vs Lions Test series, when the Gauteng province was at the epicentre of a surge in the delta variant of Covid.
Maisashvili (left) was cleared to return to Georgia and his homecoming was moving
The Boks were supposed to face Georgia in two warm-up fixtures, but the second was cancelled due to outbreaks in both camps. At least the head coach of the ‘Lelos’ survived. Not everyone did.
‘After arriving in South Africa, we spent two weeks isolated,’ he explains. ‘We were tested four times a week. The majority of our players were vaccinated.
‘I don’t want to speak about who was the reason (for the outbreak) but the first case was a liaison officer, an African guy, and I’m sorry to say that he died.’
Having recovered far quicker than the doctors thought he would, Maisashvili was cleared to return to Georgia last month and his homecoming was moving.
‘It was amazing,’ he says. ‘There were a lot of people waiting for me; my players, my team-mates, friends, family.’
His breathing is still laboured when he talks, but Maisashvili’s condition is improving — so much so that he is easing back into work. He will take charge of Georgia for their autumn Tests against France and Fiji.
‘It will be better when I am back on the field again,’ he adds. ‘It is not natural for me to stay outside the pitch! It will help my recovery to go back into my job.’