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Surviving COVID-19

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COVID-19 is an awful disease that has killed a lot of people. But what is it like to actually suffer it, and survive?

Kirsten Whitehouse has worked with RailStaff for several years, as exhibition manager for Railtex and Infrarail with RailStaff as a media partner. Then, shortly after setting up her own company, she went down with COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. This is her story.

On Saturday 28 March, in the space of less than 30 minutes, I went from teaching a bootcamp session to lying on my sofa unable to move, gasping for air with my chest and airways burning like the sun and dry as the desert.

This is my personal account of overcoming Covid-19. It doesn’t make for pleasant reading – but Corona is not a pleasant virus. The article is not meant to frighten you but, make no mistake, I AM trying to make you realise just how serious this virus is.

Some of you may know me from my previous role as exhibition manager for Railtex and Infrarail, two of the UK’s leading rail shows. I left that position in early 2019 to set up my own company, Green Tiger Events, counting organisations like the fabulous Railway Industry Association amongst my clients. I also studied on the side, qualifying as a fitness instructor in late 2019.

It is important for you to know this – I will explain why later.

First signs – feeling a bit rubbish

My Covid story starts on 24 March, just a few days after my 45th birthday, when I started experiencing very subtle symptoms: an occasional cough, a dreadful headache and a pain in my chest and stomach that made me think I had indigestion (I never get indigestion!). If I had a temperature it was low enough for me to not notice. My voice went strangely hoarse and coffee started tasting ‘wrong’.

For days, I dismissed my feeling a bit rubbish as a seasonal cold. It may well have been.

I continued teaching my online bootcamp throughout those early days without too much of a problem, until after that one Saturday morning class when everything suddenly changed: a leaden tiredness descended on me and wouldn’t lift for weeks. My airways and deep into my chest felt as if they were on fire. No amount of water seemed to even touch the bone-dry sides of my mouth and throat. It was this extreme sensation – one of the weirdest feelings I have ever experienced – which finally made me research Corona symptoms properly: I found a timeline of common symptoms and was horrified to realise that – with the exception of the fever – I was ticking them off, one by one.

I spent the next two days in bed but still in doubt: it seemed unlikely that I would be one of the first to pick this up. As a healthy fitness and nutrition teacher I didn’t think I was a likely candidate. Despite my cough progressively getting much worse, my chest feeling tighter and heavier and my breathing becoming more laboured, I commented to friends that I’d had colds worse than this in the past.

I spoke too soon. By day three, the cough had eased some, but the burning in my chest steadily worsened whilst my breathing became ever more restricted. The most distressing thing was the sheer tiredness. I could not leave my bed for days – the occasional wobble to the bathroom wore me out so much that I literally had to crawl back to bed. Lying down was impossible, I felt like I was drowning. I was by now 100 per cent convinced I had the virus, though I still felt I could struggle through without having to burden the NHS.

I was lucky in that my partner and my bootcamp clients took care of me by leaving shopping and nutritious meals on my doorstep for days on end. I was very aware that my body needed sustenance to keep fighting but I was far too weak to prepare anything. Once a day I would force myself downstairs to retrieve smoothies or soups. It would often take me an hour or two to be strong enough to slowly climb back upstairs to bed.

Six days after that horrible first day, I slowly started feeling better. Still tired and weak, but I was breathing easier. My two teenage sons, who had been staying with their Dad since before I got ill, were desperate to come home and it felt safe enough to let them, albeit with strict rules about distancing, from me, and from anyone outside our little unit.

Boris Johnson – who had been taken ill the same day as me – reported himself as still having a temperature and thus staying in isolation. It confused me a little about the rules – was I allowed out then, as I was coughing but had no fever? I decided not to risk spreading it and stay indoors – I still felt too ill to contemplate anything else, anyway.

High temperature and feeling panicky

That reprieve was short-lived. Just a day later, my temperature suddenly spiked at around 39 degrees (102°F), I felt weak, short of breath and very panicky. My downhill spiral continued until I eventually logged my symptoms on the NHS 111 website. A doctor called me within minutes. After thoroughly checking all the symptoms I had experienced over the last eight days, he confirmed that I had almost without doubt contracted Covid-19. He explained that some patients were known to dip badly in the second week, because the virus keeps spreading around the already weakened body.

The symptoms I was experiencing now, however, were more akin to a secondary chest infection, which they were seeing in around a third of all Corona patients due to damaged airways. He referred me on for further treatment. Again, this second doctor called quickly, asked specific questions about previous (“definitely Corona”) and current symptoms, and after listening to my breathing and checking pulse and temperature over the phone, diagnosed bacterial pneumonia as brought on by Covid-19.

He said he could either admit me to hospital or I could try staying home with antibiotics. With my children still in the house and my being very conscious of the strain on the NHS, I opted for the latter. The doctor agreed; he would have suggested the same. Although clearly very unwell, he didn’t think I needed to go to hospital just yet. He warned me, though, to call back immediately should my symptoms worsen. I laughed, nervously – just how much worse could this get?

This wonderful doctor, who couldn’t have given me more time and reassurance, then proceeded to describe what patients would normally experience for them to be admitted: unable to stand up even for a second due to extreme exhaustion, unable to talk in full sentences without gasping for air, severely struggling to breathe even whilst resting. My pathetic bathroom crawl seemed to count as a major win on this scale, and whilst I was catching my breath a lot, I was still talking and, yes, still breathing.

His words shocked me to the core: for the previous week I had felt the worst I ever have in my life, and yet there were people much worse off. My brain struggled to compute what was being said. I cried for every single person already or yet to be sent to hospital, because feeling absolutely beyond dreadful as I did myself, I could not even imagine the pain they had to be in and the terrible panic they would be experiencing with every single breath they tried to force. My heart broke for every one of them, for their terrified families and for the frontline staff who would act like heroic go-betweens in a horrific reality show.

I vowed not to become one of them, and instead turned into a model patient. The first and second lots of antibiotics failed to clear the pneumonia. By the time I was given my third prescription, doctors had discovered which antibiotics worked well and they did the trick at last.

Too weak to move

Beating first the virus and then pneumonia literally brought my body to its knees. There were days when I was totally unable to leave bed, my body was entirely devoid of strength and energy. My children took over running the house and constantly plying me with food and fresh water. Other than that, I just lay there. There is only so much sleeping you can do and, bizarrely, exhaustion does not equal tiredness. I was too weak to read, and not interested in watching tv.

I remember thinking on more than one occasion that I could probably just close my eyes and not wake up again, I felt my existence had already disappeared. In those moments, I was almost grateful for the agony in my lungs, which jolted me back into consciousness. But with it came the breathing problems and the threat of panic attacks.

They were dark days and weeks; whilst many of my friends were getting tired of being locked down, I was glad to just be alive. It took a cycle of five days’ complete bed rest to finally make me start seeing slight improvements. It took five weeks from the start of the illness until I found myself washing up three pans in the kitchen. Euphoria! To be doing a mundane normal job again! Yet it tired me so much that I spent the whole next day back in bed.

It’s been a slow process since, there are good days, where I manage to go for short walks, and bad days, where I have to take myself back to bed for the whole day. I have learned to listen to my body and give it what it needs. I was unlucky to catch Corona, but I was lucky to get through it: I am improving all the time, as indeed the majority of patients will. Make no mistake though – this virus will wreak havoc wherever it can.

Remember what I said at the beginning? I am a 45-year-old female. I coach nutrition and fitness out of passion in my spare time. I am fit and healthy, without underlying health issues.

And still – this virus reduced me to a shell, lying in bed feeling closer to dead than alive. In the words of my GP: my body threw everything at that virus, to defeat it and to keep me alive. His prognosis is that it will take at least another two to three months until I have fully recovered.

I may be an unlikely Covid candidate on paper, but I made myself an easy target for the virus by not looking after myself: Green Tiger Events had grown so rapidly that I was often working seven days a week. Trying to fit my clients’ needs around spending quality time with my children also meant I often worked until 1 or 2am. I loved my work, but burning the candle at both ends meant my immune system was on its knees: I was completely exhausted, running on adrenaline, and then coaching hardcore fitness with a tired body. When I contracted the virus, my body had very few reserves left to fight it off.

Don’t repeat my mistakes! Please: look after your immune system, it is your best friend through all of this. Listen to official advice and stay home wherever possible. And spare a thought for everyone in hospital today – patients or staff. Send them a silent wish – and then act accordingly. You have the power to make a real difference going forward – step wisely.