The COVID19 pandemic has rocked the world and certainly has had a significant impact on my life this year. I was scheduled to fly to Hanoi, Vietnam on March 13th to volunteer with a charity, Newborns Vietnam (https://www.newbornsvietnam.org/), to teach neonatal nurses over a two week period organised by Edinburgh Napier University.
In January, the COVID19 crisis in China was being reported daily and the media highlighted that it was spreading in Asia. I did have concerns about flying to Vietnam which I raised with the charity, however was reassured that the virus was not yet in Hanoi. I maintained a ‘watchful wait’. In February and with a very heavy heart I cancelled my offer to volunteer with Newborns Vietnam. I felt sad and very guilty as I knew there was a cohort of wonderful Vietnamese neonatal nurses looking forward to their course; I hope there will be another opportunity for me to volunteer with the charity in the future.
As the UK went into lockdown I planned to upcycle some pieces of furniture in the garage and bought supplies. There was increasing anxiety in the press and I had friends in Italy who were reporting that COVID19 had closed their country. My point here is that I was mainly at home and in my garage painting from March 16th and was not exposed to large groups of people even before lockdown on March 23rd, therefore I have no idea where I contracted the virus. I had felt quite confident that I was being careful, not going to crowded places and scrubbing my hands. I also enjoy great health, no co-morbidities and couldn’t remember the last time I was sick, therefore assumed that I would escape contracting the virus. I was very surprised that on Thursday evening of March 26th I began to feel unwell.
I would like to share my COVID19 virus experience as I had an atypical presentation which may have been dismissed had I not been tested. The date, March 26th, is etched on my memory as it was the first ‘clap for the NHS’ evening and it was also the same day that our PM Boris Johnson developed symptoms of the virus. I got back from my 10,000 step walk around the beautiful Plymouth Hoe but unusually I struggled for the last part, had developed a dull headache and didn’t feel ‘right’. At 8pm I went out on the doorstep and clapped the NHS along with everyone else on our street and felt very proud. The headache was getting worse and I felt a bit shivery, which I put down to the headache, so I took paracetamol and headed to bed. The headache became severe/debilitating overnight and the ‘shivers’ progressed to rigors and I had photosensitivity. We currently live with our son and partner as our house is being renovated. My son Niall is the lead radiographer in the Emergency Department in Derriford Hospital and his partner Maeve is a primary school teacher, both key workers. We all went in to quarantine and I telephoned the Trust absence reporting line and I sought support from my line manager to get tested. I isolated in my bedroom as I was fairly sure that I had the virus.
The COVID19 journey
The headache was severe for three days and the fever continued. I consumed vast amounts of paracetamol and drank lots of fluids. A few days later, the headache improved and temperature was down and I was euphoric as I thought, that’s it, I am over it now. We had a ZOOM get-together with family in London, Sheffield and Ireland and I joined from my bedroom and reassured everyone that I was over it. However, over the next few days I was so lethargic and was exhausted even after having a bath and just slept. The headache would return after any exertion and I developed chest pain but did not have shortness of breath. The fever would come back and I would feel really unwell. I was supported by my manager to get a COVID19 screen and was tested on Day 6 and result reported as positive on day 7. So, the entire household were now in quarantine for 14 days and everyone worked remotely – thank God for ZOOM / Microsoft teams.
As the days went on I had some days when I felt really well and again euphoric and contacted my line manager and colleagues saying I was improving and hoped to be back to work soon. I felt very guilty that I was not on NICU supporting the team during this unpresented time when the entire service was changing. I also sit on the National Neonatal Nurses Association (NNA) executive team and we needed to put out statements and support our members. I was trying to be involved in the various discussion forums / webinars about how COVID19 was affecting the neonatal population and their families nationally, however my energy levels were so low and I could not commit to be involved which made me feel very sad. My husband was making chicken soup (God’s penicillin) in the hope that I would have more energy.
The chest pain got worse, I had a burning sensation right down to the base of my lungs, my hands and feet were white and the headache was worse with any exertion, so I was fairly shut down. I had read that COVID19 affected the type II alveolar cells in the lungs which produce surfactant and keeps the lungs lubricated. I telephoned 111 as I was concerned that I was hypoxic and I was really frightened, doctors on TV were talking about the ‘happy hypoxic, meaning patients were not breathless but were found to have dangerously low oxygen levels… I was not happy! I took deep breaths and lay prone as I had read on Twitter that this would help. Interestingly I had no cough. I hung on the phone to 111 for an hour without an answer, I could imagine how busy they were, anyway I gave up and fell asleep and when I woke I felt better, this virus was playing with me. The media also reported that Boris was admitted to hospital and in ICU; I prayed I would avoid hospital.
I decided that I needed to get back to normal and planned to go out for short walks in the evenings. Instead of getting better my symptoms increased – metallic taste in my mouth, burning feeling in my nostrils (it was like someone had left the oven on) and I felt every cell in my body was affected by COVID19. My walks were very short and I dreaded them as the burning in my chest and headaches were always worse during the walk and I was exhausted afterwards but everyone was saying the virus should be gone by day 7.
Day 12 my courage was leaving me and as a nurse and proud that at 60 I enjoy (usually) great health and rarely bother my GP, however hearing the horror stories in the media of how COVID19 was killing young people I was very concerned that I was not getting better. I telephoned 111 again and after 40 minutes got through, told my tale to the call handler, then to a clinical person who said a doctor would call me back. I didn’t hear anything but I continued with my deep breathing and lying prone and fell asleep again. Again after a night’s sleep I felt better the next day; I was getting clear clues that this virus needed me to rest.
I was desperate to get back to work and having rested a lot and continued some wee walks in the sun with my husband I decided to return to work on day 27 following the start of my symptoms. I worked for 6 hours and had to go home, the pain in my head and chest was very severe. I got my BP and saturations checked at work and the BP was a bit low and Sats 95%, so I went home to bed again. I telephoned my GP weekly and she told me I needed time to get better and to rest. I don’t usually have ‘rest’ in my vocabulary or my diary, so I found that frustrating and the guilt for not being at work and helping out was killing me.
I mentioned that I live with three others and we have discussed at length how I was exposed to the virus and if they had been affected. They did not have any significant symptoms but think they ‘may’ have had a bit of a headache and a bit of an ‘off’ day but all continued to work, however without them being tested (it was not offered routinely when I came down with symptoms) they don’t know if they have had COVID19.
I am at day 42 from start of my symptoms now and back to work on a phased return. The chest burning and headache on exertion continues but I will just have to rest as much as possible and hope that in time it will disappear. I have offered to donate blood for the Convalescent Plasma Clinical Trial and have been told by the NHS Blood and Transplant team that I fit the criteria to donate. I really hope that I get the opportunity to help other people suffering from this horrible virus.
Our habits and routines have all changed and the NHS has been flagged up as an extraordinary service by all in the UK. I have always been proud to be a nurse and I hope that people continue to recognise our worth. COVID19 has opened people’s eyes to amazing work that happens every day.