Tributes have been paid to a “wonderful” doctor and father-of-four who died of coronavirus while treating patients on the Covid-19 frontline.
Dr Irfan Halim, described by friends as a “gift of a man”, passed away at the Royal Brompton hospital in South Kensington on Sunday following a nine-week battle with the virus.
It came just two months after he had taken up work on the Covid intensive care unit (ICU) wards at Swindon Hospital, where it is believed he contracted the virus before collapsing during a shift on September 10. Dr Halim was fully vaccinated and wore full personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times during his time on the wards.
After spending several weeks in ICU in Swindon, Dr Halim was transferred to the Royal Brompton on September 23 where he received extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) treatment. He died in the arms of his wife Saila, who said she was “whispering prayers and love into his ears”.
Dr Halim, a consultant general surgeon who worked across a variety of practices during his 25-year medical career, was on Thursday hailed as a “tower of strength” by friends and family. He specialised in laparoscopic surgery and spent time working in clinics on the prestigious Harley Street.
His tragic death occurred just a few weeks after his father Kamal, also a doctor, passed away from Covid in late September, close friends of the family said. He was buried and a funeral took place while his son was in the ICU at the Royal Brompton.
Siân Hughes-Pollitt, a family friend who met Dr Halim several years ago through a fencing club which three of his children attended, said his death had left “an enormous gap in many places and spaces”.
She told the Standard he would frequently commute for over two hours from his home in Barking to Swindon to treat patients.
“Irfan had a kind word for everybody,” she said. “It is so difficult to accept that a man who took every medical and clinical precaution against Covid died of the disease.
“He had incredible dedication as a doctor. He would never desert Swindon even as Covid became worse in the hospital – it never would have crossed his mind. He had a sense of principle and duty.
“When I picture him now, I see him standing beside his wife and family – a tower of strength. He is the husband, the dad, the best friend. I see him living through his wife and children.”
Ms Hughes-Pollitt said she had spoken to Dr Halim’s wife Saila just hours after she watched her husband pass away in ICU. “She was broken... The first thing she told me was: ‘He went out to work and he never came home. It was the longest shift.’
“The gap he left is so vast – it felt like an ocean of loss”.
Saila and Irfan first met at an icing rink in East London, and settled down in Whitechapel before moving to Barking to be closer to family members.
Ms Hughes-Pollitt said that one of Saila’s final memories of her husband was a FaceTime call from ICU in Swindon Hospital after he had come out of sedation.
“Saila told him: ‘We need you. The children need you to fight this.’ He was unable to speak but she saw him nod in agreement. He was giving her his pledge to fight.”
In a post on social media on Monday, Saila paid tribute to her “best friend”.
She wrote: “My beloved Irfan passed away on the Sunday, November 14 at 7.51pm peacefully whilst I held him in my arms whispering prayers and love into his ears along with his brother and sister surrounded by his beautiful friends.
“Irfan you gave me fifteen magical years as your wife, four beautiful children, wonderful memories that will last me until my remaining days in this world.
“You were not only my best friend but a best friend to all our children and so many others.”
A GoFundMe page set up in Dr Irfan’s memory has already raised over £80,000 and the money will be used to help support Saila and her family.
“We want to use his memory as a kind of glue to hold the family together and create a more long-lasting recognition of the values that he stood for,” she said.
“He never left his post. He was like a soldier battling this virus. Like other NHS workers, he has looked danger in the eye and stood there to protect others. They are heroes.”