It is Friday evening and I joke on our partner’s WhatsApp’s group ‘ I am trying to pretend I don’t have a sore throat, I think a gin will help’. I keep ignoring it, but by Saturday I can’t deny it anymore, coupled with the burning sensation in my chest. We have spent the last 3 weeks or so working at full tilt in the practice to clear our backlog, reverse our way of working and minimise face to face contact; we have split our sites into ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, we are all set up for working from home, and we are ready. I just wasn’t ready to be ill…
I am still sure it is just a cold but I switch to working from home to self-isolate for 7 days. Day 5 and I am feeling undeniably below par. I am logged in from home and doing my surgery by phone; I start to notice how long each phone call is taking me, and how my sentences are getting shorter and shorter. Finally, after a particularly voluble patient that I struggle to keep up with, I check my sats…90%. I am no intensivist, but I am pretty sure that is not good. My fabulous colleagues all sweep in remotely and take over my surgery and I crawl to bed where my sats recover. Each trip to the loo brings an alarming tachycardia and a drop in sats. But also sometimes just lying in bed, an episode of breathlessness for no apparent reason. I have a consistent RR of 24, but as long as I am not active my sats are maintained.
Constant chest pain and breathlessness become the default. Circulating on the WhatsApp groups are stern warnings of how patients with COVID can go from being pretty fine to pretty dead in a few hours, so when day 7 brings a sudden unprovoked, unexplained episode of acute breathlessness, I end up in an ambulance to respiratory ED, crying all the way with guilt that my children have seen me like this and I am leaving them with a good chance that I am going to die.
Luckily my sense of doom is misplaced; I don’t die, and after bloods and a CTPA, the episode settles back to down to my ‘usual’ level of breathlessness and I can go home. The next 7 days are spent in bed, breathless, and with the sensation of a burning bowling ball sitting on my chest.
And then begins the recovery…at a worse-than-snail’s pace. Patience is a virtue I was never blessed with, and coupled with the guilt of being away from work for so long it’s a tough time. The breathlessness still creeps up from time to time and the exhaustion is grinding. Just trying to read 5 of the seemingly ten thousand emails that have built up is too much. My capacity to do anything other than watch trash sitcoms has vanished. Slowly things improve and finally, the day comes when I can leave the house and walk around the block. It is a triumph and restores my spirits.
4 weeks from day 1 and I am working from home, on a light schedule; I am still exhausted, it is so boring, but I am heading back to normality after the oddest 4 weeks. I am incredibly lucky. I have had huge support from friends, family, and my beloved work colleagues. I had exemplary care from paramedics and the ED. And now I have no worries about how effective my PPE may or may not be…
Siobhan Becker, GP Oxford & NB Medical Hot Topics presenter