The Covid-19 Diary of Barra Fitzgibbon (aged 49 and a bit), Part Two

Published: 20th Jul, 2020

Part 2 – it makes it sound like there’ll be a Part 3. I really hope not. I don’t know when I’ll recover fully but I really hope it’ll happen soon.

In the previous instalment, I’d limped out of Lewisham Hospital on 25 March and it’s now (checks calendar) 17 July and it still feels both mentally and physically like there’s some way to go. I must temper this with the fact that the recoveries of other *“covivours’” have been far more challenging than my own.

* I’m a covivour (what), I’m not gon’ give up (what) I’m not gon’ stop (what), I’m gon’ work harder (what) I’m a covivour (what), I’m gonna make it (what)I will corvive (what), keep on corvivin’ (what)

Tune.

Anyway, consultants have told me about people in recovery being exhausted after pouring a bowl of cornflakes. In the same way that our immune response to this virus is completely specific to us, so it seems, is how we get over it. Some people’s organs have been compromised, others have had clots and scarring on the lungs which cause continued breathlessness. I’ve been pretty lucky so far.

I mentioned in the previous piece that Covid has an intellect. Turns out, every so often, it likes to remind me it’s still there. It might have failed to kill me but it’s still inflicting mental and physical scars as a happy alternative – I know right, what a prick!

Let me bring you back to late March. I was discharged, I’d moved into the loft, and I was self-isolating for another 14 days. The pleurisy – the rubbing of the chest against the lung due to massive inflammation – was at peak levels. For the first few days, I was just trying to find a channel to breathe that didn’t hurt. At the same time every consultant, nurse, GP, you name it, kept reminding me of the importance of my breathing exercises. Deep diaphragmatic breathing that was geared to bring up the dead tissue from deep inside the lungs.

Every morning was like having an asthma attack. I couldn’t breathe properly until I’d coughed up huge barrel-fulls of a white salty phlegm (sorry!). A grim and never-ending cycle of daily breathing exercises, a hacking cough and excruciating pain. Word has it that white salty phlegm is the common thread for most covivours. Bizarrely, knowing that we were all coughing up the same crap felt good to hear – sort of gave us a connection, something to talk about.

I tried an array of chairs to sit on to ease the discomfort, before eventually landing on an adjustable garden chair from Homebase – who’d have thought? It put me an angle that made things just about bearable.

I didn’t move out of the loft for months. Now and again I might try the stairs, give that a go, but nothing more than that. I felt like I was 150 years old, weak to the core. Even so, I ate like a horse. Massive breakfasts, lunch and dinner, plus “elevensis”, oh, and “foursis” – an extra in-between-meals meal I invented, usually just tea and cake. You should try it. Most importantly I rekindled my childhood relationship with ice cream, vanilla with a few digestives crumbled in. Heaven.

My wife Jen, and children Jacob and Robyn – who have all had their own Covid battles – were there with constant knocks on the loft door, which I have been so grateful for. Always with a tray of deliciousness, always with a loving smile. They’ve added an incalculable percentage to my recovery. Jen and Jacob both had the Covid cough and we could tell it was moving into worrying waters. The GP was on it like a flash. Antibiotics were prescribed in a heartbeat, and now they’re both doing fine. *Dennis and Teresa, part of my beloved Irish contingent, have called every day to make sure I’m not overdosing on the painkillers, or to advise me on how to optimise the breathing exercises. Dennis suggested I steam, old school style – head in a tea towel, bowl of boiling hot water with a few drops of olbas oil thrown in for good measure. Lovely stuff.

(*Dennis I love you and Teresa the reiki worked. You’re the real Mother Teresa, never mind that one from Calcutta.)

Days became weeks, weeks became months, and I had to be careful, I could get used to “the loft life”. Fed, watered, and a constant stream of “Covid movies” (see list below). But if I was going to get better I’d need to start moving, to build up some strength.

Consultants kept in touch, advising me that I’d get there eventually (but when?). That the pain would subside (but when?). That my breathing would normalize (but when?). That my chest and lungs would clear up (but when?). That’s when I realised that they were waiting on me to find out. I was a covivour, I was the one steering this ship. I was one of the first to make it home. How I recovered would give them some kind of yardstick for the rest of us. When you’re dealing with the unknown you don’t know if there’s going to be nasty turn, a catch, a plot twist – and trust me, if anything is capable of a nasty turn, it’s Covid.

In recovery, my obsession with Covid multiplied. Cal (my buddy who refused to break me out of hospital – thanks for nothing, man!) informed me of research around Covid and men’s testicles. One of the theories is that the disease affects men more than women because of our balls. I looked into it and Cal was right, pages and pages online, it’s all there. Viruses in the male body often hide in your bollocks. Might there be a spot of Covid in my bollocks? Only one way to find out.

I was getting stronger, time to risk a wank*. For research purposes, you understand?

(*I know my kids and their friends read these updates, so I can only apologise, but it’s important we don’t white wash this experience. There’s a pun in there somewhere.)

I gave it a bash and holy fuck – I defy any man not to panic at the sight of blood in their semen. Was Covid, as it turned out, actually hiding in my nuts? Immediate call to the GP and she concurred. Again, that nagging thought “but do they really know?”. Went online and googled “blood in semen”. Bad idea. POSSIBLE PROSTATE CANCER!!! GP advised to give it a few days but to keep checking – if you’re looking for the upside here, a silver lining, that might be it. I duly kept checking.

Not long after, my lungs suddenly worsened (unrelated to the balls stuff, I think!). The breathing exercises were effective, so much so that I’d been constantly coughing for around three months, which takes its toll. I remember this exactly. I was sitting in the kitchen and along came another belter of a cough. Suddenly, pop! The pain floored me. I couldn’t move or breathe without being in absolute agony. I thought my lung had collapsed – something I’d suffered from before. Jen implored me to go to A+E, but I swore I couldn’t do it. Lewisham University Hospital, I love you, you saved my life, but I didn’t want to go back. When I go there, I tend to stay. I broke down into a sorry mess, but Jen wouldn’t let up, and she was right. After much cajoling, I walked gingerly into A+E, basically shitting myself.

I needn’t have worried. Just when you think the NHS couldn’t possibly raise the bar, they do it again. The minute they found out who I was they were all over me (in a good way). Because of the pandemic, I was the only patient in A+E. I could sense the excitement amongst the doctors and nurses – a “covivour” in their midst! It felt like an opportunity. Ultrasound, bloods, Xrays, check for clots, scarring, prostate, liver count, the full MOT. And most importantly, the all-clear. My liver was still looking slightly compromised, but to be expected. The diagnosis was that I tore a muscle in the rib cage with the coughing. Not many people would be happy with that diagnosis, but I was thrilled, over the moon.

Over the last few weeks since, I’ve had virtual consultations with throat specialists, voice specialists (singing voice needs a little more TLC), Physios, lung and chest consultants. The aftercare has suddenly jumped to the next level and most recently I’ve been signed back to my old GP. “One of the lucky ones”, I’ve been told again, again and again. I’m nowhere near back to where I was – swimming three times a week and a yoga class on a Sunday – but I will be. I’m still here – sometimes that’s what really hits me. I’ll be pottering in the garden and my hands will pick up some soil, and in that moment I’ll feel very aware of the mud between my fingers, the texture and I thank god, the universe, whoever was listening when I needed it, that I’m alive.

Last week I read an article by Kate Garraway about how her husband, who’s still in a coma, couldn’t wait to be put under because of the suffering and lack of sleep from Covid. That’s exactly how I felt, but I never knew the odds of not waking up. I’m one of the lucky ones. I won’t forget that.

Hey, thinking about it, there will be a Part 3 because I’m still tracking down Adorable Andrew, the most extraordinary nurse who was by my side through the coma. I’m desperate to meet him again. We’re close to making contact, so I’ll report back.

I also need to make a fuss of my neighbours John and Shara. John for nipping out to collect the constant stream of much-needed drugs. Shara for her invaluable medical advice, making the pain feel normal and easing a lot of my anxiety.

I now know my neighbours, the doctors and consultants and nurses who work in Lewisham Hospital really well, so fuck you Covid – you inadvertently did a good thing. You brought people closer together.

Thanks to the Directors of the NHS Trust who’ve shared my story, all the love on social media and the fact that Rob Morgan, son of Dermot Morgan, as in Father Ted, said it was a must-read.

Thanks to Josh who gives my story a home and believes in its value, not just for me but for the nation. Mask up people, don’t drop your guard on this one. You could end up in a loft for 4 months.

Maybe, and I’m conscious of being a bit cheesy here, Covid is not just a threat, but an opportunity to do things better. It’s been nice to slow down, to spend time in the garden, to have dinner with the kids, even to queue up at shops. I think we’ve all grown from this. Jacob really stepped up, holding Jen through those sleepless nights of worry. It’s important to say that I don’t underestimate what Jen and the kids have been through. This is their story as much as it’s mine.

Oh I didn’t mention, did I? My spunk is completely back to normal now, checked this morning. I’ll double check tomorrow. So that’s great news for everyone 🙂

Covid Movies :Flatliners (The one with Kevin Bacon, not the shit remake)(1990) Coma (1978)Virus (2019)Critical Care (1997)Carry On Doctor (1968)

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