March 30th 2020
Our GP's story: "Covid pneumonia made me feel like I'd been poisoned"
April 3rd 2020 / 0 comment
Being hospitalised with coronavirus and self-isolating away from her children pushed GTG's columnist and doctor Johanna Ward to the brink. For a while, it was touch and go. She shares the lessons we all need to learn
Only two weeks before I fell ill with covid-19 pneumonia, I was asked to write an article on how to self-isolate; so I knew exactly what to do when, quite out of the blue, I suddenly started to feel feverish and unwell. I retreated into my bedroom straight away with a packet of paracetamol and didn’t come out for another 16 days.
My experience of the coronavirus has been nothing short of life-changing and I am sharing it with you all in the hope that it might somehow help. During my 16-day battle, I knew of only one other person who had it. When I fell ill there were only three confirmed cases in Kent, where I live. So I hadn’t heard a first-hand survivors account and I hadn’t really heard about recovery and survival. Quite the opposite really, all I had heard was catastrophic deaths in Italy and the start of the wave in the UK.
My 16 days of self-isolation definitely took me to the threshold of my physical and emotional resilience (my advice on what measures to take for isolation is at the end of this article). I count myself a fit and healthy 42-year-old. My lungs aren’t perfect as they were affected by tuberculosis when I was 25 but I certainly didn’t think I was ‘high risk’.
Days one-to-three were fine. I had nothing more than a mild fever and sat for much of it on my bed doing work. I even managed a 45-minute yoga session on day three, which seems remarkable now. On day four, I developed quite significant chest tightness and shortness of breath. Even just moving around my room took real respiratory effort.
By day five I knew I had corona; this was different. Every single system in my body conspired against me now. My head throbbed on both sides. My chest hurt and I couldn’t open up my airways to let the air in. My body was lethargic and heavy. To add to my problems, I had dreadful diarrhoea. My skin felt prickly and possessed and by day six I had a sudden and complete loss of both my appetite and sense of smell. If I am honest I felt like I was being poisoned. Everything that could go wrong with my body was. At this point, I realised things were getting serious and I had to cut off from all social media and watching TV as the covid ‘noise’ was just too great. My mental health at this point was just too fragile to cope.
I cried. i was scared. I told my loved ones via text that I loved them
On day six I was taken to hospital by paramedics who told me that I had likely coronavirus pneumonia. They were right. My swabs confirmed a very high viral load and the focus was my lungs. This was a real low point but I was treated with so much compassion and respect by the healthcare workers in my local hospital that I almost relaxed my guard a little. Maybe I wouldn’t die after all.
I have nothing but huge respect for those healthcare workers who are working with covid-positive people on the frontline of this invisible battle. Despite working with a highly contagious disease that was a life risk to others, all the healthcare professionals that attended me made me feel welcome and cared for. You can’t ask for much more from total strangers. Even at my lowest ebb, there was a sense of human warmth and love, something that was much needed after my days of total isolation.
Despite the pneumonia, I was sent home again to self-isolate and to manage. I spent a further nine days alone sweating it out. I cried. I was scared. I told my loved ones via text that I loved them and that their love had made my life wonderful and complete. In those dark moments I reflected a lot. At least I had the comfort of knowing that if I died my life had been bathed in love. I learned that a happy life is one that you cannot bear to leave.
By day 12, the fever had died off. My chest began to open up again. My appetite returned and my skin issues resolved. I allowed myself to hope for the first time that I might actually survive this ordeal and walk out of my room alive. In the following days, I managed to sit upright in my bed again, to pick up my phone and interact with family and friends. They had been petrified and they needed some reassurance that I was going to be OK.
I sat by the window and watched my children play again. I had seen fear and distress in their eyes days earlier. They knew mummy was very sick, they saw the ambulance take me away. School has abruptly ended. They knew a virus was lurking. They knew something was seriously wrong. So they were bursting with joy when I reappeared in their lives again. I had missed Mother's Day and my daughter's fifth birthday. At my worst, I had heard them all crying for me from behind my door. It broke my heart. So it was wonderful to hear them playing in the garden again and to hear their happy voices. The sun was out. The darkness was over. As quickly as my symptoms started they faded. The trauma was over. I had WON.
On a more philosophical and collective note, I pondered how on earth something that happened in China had come to almost steal a mummy away from her three kids in a remote part of Kent. I guess what we have all learned (the hard way) is that we are all connected and interconnected. No man is an island, as John Donne famously said.
I truly hope that in this global crisis we have the maturity as a society to make some radical changes. We have to understand that we are accountable. The coronavirus pandemic has happened because of careless and thoughtless human behaviours.
The biggest threats to humanity right now are climate change and emerging infectious diseases. When we abuse our planet, deforest the land, pollute our oceans, allow massive urban spread, encroach on animals, abuse exotic animals and try to play God then these things will happen.
We currently feed 80 per cent of the world’s antibiotics to livestock because we raise animals in cramped and squalid conditions. We face a huge threat from superbugs and antibiotic resistance in the future if we don’t stop this agri-practice. We are seeing the effects now of not having one vaccine in the world. Imagine a world without any antibiotics and with more emerging 'zoonotic' diseases - those transmitted from animals to humans. Now that’s going to be truly terrifying world.
We have learned that tiny, invisible particles transmitted from animals to humans can wreak havoc across the globe in a matter of months and can potentially wipe out humankind. Surely we see now that we can’t keep slapping Mother Nature around the face? She is showing the world right now that she has ways to protect herself.
As the dust settles and the danger passes, my one hope is that we reflect and put into action a new and awakened approach to modern living that promotes harmony between all living creatures on this beautiful Planet. Only if we do this will we have a chance to carve out a better and brighter future.
Dr Johnanna Ward is Get The Gloss GP columnist and author of Superfoods to Superhealth: Intelligent and sustainable food choices for the next generation, £27, Kindle £9.99. For her tips on how to self-isolate see below.
How to self-isolate from other members of your household if you fall ill with coronavirus
More than ever right now we need to work as a collective. Please do not ignore symptoms and continue to move around the community if you are meant to be isolating. You will potentially be putting people’s lives at risk. That’s not ok. If you need to self isolate this is what you do:
* Choose a room in your home with good ventilation
* Limit your movements to that room and the bathroom
* Choose a room away from flatmates and family if you can
* Tell all deliveries to be left at the door.
* Sneeze and cough into tissues and bin all tissues.
* Wash your hands at least 20 per day. Use hand sanitiser gel when you can’t get to the bathroom
* Wipe down all hard surfaces regularly and get other household members to do the same
* Get family members to prepare meals for you and leave them outside the door
* Use your own crockery and bowls for meals. Dishwasher clean.
* If you need to leave the room, do so when no one else is around and wear a mask.
* Wipe down the toilet after each use with disinfectant and try and use the bathroom after everyone else has used it.
I hope this list helps. It’s not definitive but merely a guide.