The COVID-19 Diary of Barra Fitzgibbon, aged 49 and a bit.

Tuesday March 3: I woke up with a cough. Irritating enough but nothing I couldn’t handle. Covid 19 was all over the news but the narrative was very different. “This was a flu not much worse than seasonal flu, affected old people in the main and people with previous medical conditions.” I believed the headlines, the government quotes, and felt strongly that if I got it, I’d beat it. In fact, I was thinking I’d build an immunity and onwards. Of course I was washing my hands whilst singing Happy Birthday, twice, I was a responsible citizen. But I was confident. That initial laissez faire attitude from the government reminded me of that ad from my youth: “Dr Pepper, what’s the worst that can happen?” I’ve digressed. Rewind. For now, I’ve got this irritating cough.

Friday March 6: From cough to flu. I woke up at 3 a.m. and this felt different. I was flattened, “run over by a train” flattened. My throat was on fire and I ached everywhere. The cough was worse. Following the rules I dialled 111. There was a long wait, no surprise, but eventually I got through. I was quickly advised to go to Urgent Care in Lewisham and get tested for Covid 19. I was told to do so within the next 9 hours. I thought to myself, I’ll try and get some kip and go down in the morning.

Saturday 7 March: Morning came and I felt a little better. This was a good sign, I stayed in bed for the day, took lots of fluids and paracetamol, job done?

Pause for thought: Covid 19 is clever, yes I’m giving this virus an intellect. It gives you a false sense of security and then comes back with a vengeance.

By Saturday evening I called 111 again as I was back to Friday night’s levels of sickness. They decided to send an ambulance. For paramedics to be sent to my home, I had to meet certain criteria. I presumed from my first call to 111 that I met the criteria for Covid 19, after all I was initially advised to get tested. However, according to the latest call I didn’t meet the criteria as I hadn’t recently travelled and in fact the advice to get tested was wrong. Fortunately, I was photosensitive (extreme sensitivity to light) which did meet the criteria for an ambulance and I was told one should arrive in the next two or three hours. I argued that travel being an essential ingredient for having Covid 19 felt a bit outdated. At this stage we knew the virus was spreading within communities and people who hadn’t travelled were getting infected. This felt very wrong. 111 argued that they were following the advice from Public Health England. I heard this line of argument again and again over the coming weeks.

Two hours later and the paramedics arrived. There was no dramatic biohazard gear yet as I was deemed Covid 19 safe. I’ve never met an “arsey” paramedic. They’re always so friendly and never make you feel like you’ve put them out. They did their observations, temperature, blood sugar, blood pressure and there was nothing out of the normal, probably just flu. I was advised: “Keep drinking the fluids, taking the paracetamol and you’ll be fine, you look shocking but you’ll be out of this in 5 days”.

Another pause for thought: Again clever Covid 19. It’s almost like it goes into hiding, disguising itself as normal flu.

I carried on, bed ridden. Sunday soon became Wednesday. I got these episodes of feeling better, bouts of energy that made me feel like I could lick it. I’d feel better for an evening but the next day, I was back to square one plus a little bit worse. The government narrative was still very relaxed: “If you get it, most of you won’t even notice the symptoms.” Look, Cheltenham was going ahead for goodness sake. How bad could it be? It did catch my eye, being Irish, that Ireland was behaving very differently. The Irish closed everything down and cancelled the most sacred of days, St Patrick’s Day. Who ever heard the like? I thought the Irish were somewhat behaving over the top. How time proved me and the UK government so very very wrong.

Wednesday 11 March: I called 111 again. Friends of mine had dropped with flu around the same time as me but they were now recovering. I wasn’t. This time, 111 advised me to see a GP in Lewisham Hospital. I should have said, I live in Lewisham. I got myself down there, no easy feat the way I was feeling. Can you believe the  GP told me off for coming down as I could possibly infect her and other patients? I explained that this was 111’s advice, and she apologised. She listened to my chest but she was in a rush. I sensed she wanted me gone. She decided, within seconds, that it was probably seasonal flu. Out she came with the old trope: “Keep drinking plenty of fluids, take paracetamol and you’ll be fine”. I think the GP was sloppy, and made fundamental errors in her diagnosis. Covid 19 was actioning my demise at this stage. The GP missed it. Only two days later I was hospitalised.

Friday 13 March: 111 must have changed its criteria for what could be Covid 19 related and travel was no longer an essential element. Also, at this stage, I was breathless. Within 25 minutes a paramedic dressed in the dramatic biohazard gear awkwardly shuffled up to the house. You can imagine the twitching curtains up and down my ends. The paramedic apologised for her appearance and suggested it was like a scene out of 28 Days Later… pretty apt description of the entire country right now.

She did her observations and this time Covid 19 was no longer in hiding. It was too busy eating its host, as in me, and things were no longer normal. My oxygen levels were low, my temperature was high, my chest and lungs sounded in trouble. The decision was made. We were off to Lewisham A+E.

The paramedic knew something and wasn’t exactly sharing. I was on oxygen within seconds and within minutes she had inserted two canulas. I was being readied for something. She then said “I think you’re going to be a statistic”… words of comfort? I don’t think so. It’s just dawned on me, she was the first of many faces I would never see for the next two and a half weeks, the big downside of PPE.

I arrived at Lewisham A+E and staff must have got a heads up that I was on my way. Even security were making a bolt for it as I was wheeled in. Thanks for the vote of confidence lads! Lewisham A+E was militant and brilliant. I was wheel-chaired in, oxygen still attached, and they went to work. I can’t remember names. Everybody introduced themselves so I apologise now. Most if not all shall remain nameless as well as faceless.

Everything was moving so fast. Those cannulas were working overtime. My bloods were taken, drips were being attached, intravenous “you name it” was being inserted, a chest X Ray was quickly done, and a swab to test for Covid 19, done. Then after all the speed and quick toing and froing, there was a lull in proceedings. I was alone. Thinking about that time, I guess I should have been petrified, but I managed it quite well. In my mind this wasn’t Covid 19 until the test came back positive, and the swab had to go to the Queen Of Elizabeth hospital to be tested and could take up to seven days. I didn’t think about what was coming next. I thought maybe I’d stay in for one night for observation and then home. That’s when a doctor walked in and told me something very different.

She introduced herself. Within seconds, and I mean seconds, she said the following: “Barra, I want to know that we will do everything we can to save you”. Hands up here, I got quite cross with her. “Why would you say that? We don’t know its Covid 19. The swab hasn’t even left the building. Should we not stay positive?” I decided there and then that I didn’t like her. Of course it wasn’t her. It was what she was saying. I reminded myself of my dad. He got furious once with a junior doctor who suggested he might have bad blood circulation in his feet!  

She went on to explain that she was convinced it was Covid 19. How? Three signs.

1: My liver. I don’t know the medical jargon but my liver was showing some signs of weakness.

2: My immune system was compromised and…

3: The chest X-Ray. It showed a serious chest infection, but it was the way the infection was encroaching the chest that concerned her. She believed this was the way Covid 19 attacked the body.

She went further. She said that even if the swab test came back negative, which can happen with only 75% accuracy, she’d insist on a second test. She was alerting ICU (Intensive Care Unit) so they were at least aware of me. Little did I know, she actually recommended that I go into ICU immediately. ICU kicked it back, arguing that it was too soon. I found this out later through the indiscretion of a random nurse.

Another quick pause here: I massively regret getting cross with this doctor because she’s obviously brilliant. I’ll come back to her. Let’s call her the A+E Doctor so we remember. Her words might have upset and clearly scared me on my arrival, but those same words brought great comfort to me over the following days. I’ll come back to her again.

So, I quickly processed that I was in Lewisham Hospital for the foreseeable. The next job was to find me a bed on a Covid 19 ward.

Another quick pause: I don’t know the ins and outs of how the NHS works and it’s very easy to criticise and I don’t want to. I’ll merely give you the facts and you can make up your own mind. They take their orders from Public Health England and this is what they’ve been told to do. I don’t know if this policy has changed since my discharge. Whether you have Covid 19 or you’re just suspected of having Covid 19, you’re sharing the same ward. When a nurse comes into that ward, yes they’re wearing PPE, but they don’t change that PPE in between treating patients. Let’s take the situation of using the same gloves to treat a patient with Covid 19 and then moving on to treat a patient who doesn’t, a possible scenario on these wards. Treating involves a lot of touching, taking temperature, administering drugs. Makes you think, but I’ll leave it there. That policy may have changed. This was quite early on in the pandemic here in the U.K. and everyone, patient and nurse, is petrified and really not completely sure what they’re doing. Let me give you the context for why I’m slow to criticise. These people saved my life. There it is in a nutshell. We move on.

I duly arrived onto a Covid 19 ward. There were four patients and just like in all walks of life, there was always one. What this guy was doing on a Covid 19 ward I’ve no idea. Racist Roger didn’t even have a cough and from his behaviour was clearly not ill. He was constantly screaming and yelling day and night, demanding cups of tea and food. He often jumped out of bed and left the ward to confront staff outside. You were not supposed to leave a Covid 19 ward. You were meant to piss in a bottle and as for the other – you were meant to politely ask for a commode!

His racism filled that ward. Anytime anyone black came in, doctor, nurse, health worker, it started. “Go back to where you came from you black cunt”. Staff skilfully ignored him and continued to nurse him with an extraordinary presence of mind. When I asked if there is something you can do – like get security? – to throw him out, I was told “This is the NHS love”. I felt very naïve.

The next day I told a visiting doctor that I felt threatened by his behaviour and that afternoon security had Racist Roger out the door and he was gone. “Won’t be long till he’s back”, said one of the health workers. “He’s the classic bed blocker. Regularly gets chucked out and then he’s back on a ward within seven days”.

How he got put onto a Covid 19 ward I’ll never know, unless Lewisham Hospital had a cunning plan! I jest. Racist Roger out, 10 minutes later and the next patient in. He was a chap around my age. He gave me a thumbs up and a wave as he was wheeled in. His name was Simon.

Quick pause: I remember Simon’s name for good reason. I only mention him because I get to see him later, days later. He’s an important part of what I went through, you’ll understand when we get there.

Sunday 15 March: I’ve had absolutely no sleep and I mean zero. I did mention ear plugs to a roaming nurse. “They used to supply them but then somebody sued the NHS when one of them got stuck in their ear” was the answer. People!

I was still on oxygen, had been since my trip in the ambulance.

Ok, quick pause to explain a little science: Oxygen and sats (abbreviation for saturation levels). I’ll be brief.  “For someone who’s healthy, the normal blood oxygen saturation level will be around 95–100%. If the oxygen level is below this, it can be an indicator that there is a lung problem. People with low oxygen level may need additional oxygen or other treatment.” On my own without oxygen I was in the low 80’s. So clearly I had problems but with the oxygen I maintained around the 95/96% mark. No panic….yet.

In the early afternoon on the Sunday I had a visit from an outreach nurse.

Pause: You might be wondering, what is an outreach nurse? I found this online: “A sick patient is often a quiet patient and easy to overlook on a busy ward. Critical care outreach nurses are there to notice the early signs of deteriorating health and provide prompt, appropriate intervention.”

She pulled up a chair and gave me some good information previously not shared, which maybe should have been. She was the indiscreet nurse I mentioned earlier. She told me that the A+E Doctor (remember?) had recommended that I go to ICU, not once but twice, but ICU were still not convinced. Albeit with oxygen, my sats were holding and the nurse agreed that it was too soon. She explained that ICU treatment was very invasive, involved general anaesthetic for intubation (when a tube is inserted in the throat to do your breathing for you). That in itself was riddled with risk of infection and death. Cheers love, let’s hope my sats don’t drop! The outreach nurse had spoken too soon.

That evening and even with oxygen, my sats began to drop, Covid 19 was winning this battle. I was feeling generally worse, more breathless. I called the nurse and asked to see the doctor on call. After a few hours the doctor duly arrived, took a lot of blood, noted the struggling sats and suggested ICU was becoming more and more likely. I welcomed it. I wanted to be put under. I hadn’t slept since Friday. I just wanted to sleep. Despite the odds, despite the statistics around ICU, despite the fact that they didn’t have one Covid 19 survivor come out of intubation, I was happy to sign. I needed to sleep and let’s be honest, the way my sats were falling, I was dying.

Cue Commander Charlie from ICU. He arrived into the ward. Remember the scene In E.T. when the FBI arrived to Elliot’s house all suited and booted in biohazard gear? That was Commander Charlie. He gave me the brief. In an hour they would come for me. They would intubate and attach me to a ventilator. I’d be in a coma for a period of time while they treat me. He suspected my lungs were full of Covid 19. Treatment would depend on what they find, what’s viral, what’s bacterial, but they would do everything in their power to save me. I immediately thought of the A+E Doctor and that’s when her words began to comfort me, along with Charlie’s. I felt in strong capable hands. My chances were reasonable, but and under Charlie’s instructions I should call friends and family, just in case.

Commander Charlie left and I started messaging loved ones. The hardest call was a WhatsApp to my wife Jen and my kids Jacob and Robyn. I explained the plan of action, and then it got very difficult. I tried, in the moment, to figure out a way to say goodbye without saying goodbye, because it might not be goodbye, but also it might be? Not easy. I tried to give sage advice to the kids and just told Jen how much I loved her. I also told Jen that if the worst did happen I’d come find her “on the other side”. We’ve always said that whoever went first had the job of finding the other “on the other side”. We spoke a little further as a family and held back our tears.

Right on schedule I was wheeled up to ICU. My personal belongings consisted of two pairs of pants, a pot of jelly and a pair of pyjamas at my feet. Before I could process what was going on, I was introduced to an anaesthetist, the one consultant who could meet my immediate need. She didn’t hesitate. Finally, I was asleep.

This is where I’ve lost track of dates and days but according to Jen I was under for six days.  I was put into a present coma which is slightly different to a coma, in that I was semi–conscious of what was going on and, to be honest, I was hallucinating the rest of the time.

Physically, I had a tube inserted into my throat attached to a ventilator so the machines had taken over and they were breathing for me. I also had drips and three new tubes inserted into my body located just above my right collar bone. These were for the purpose of pumping in a variety of antibiotics and antivirals. I also had a catheter, a thin tube inserted into the top of my penis which travelled up into my bladder. It meant I could piss into a bag and not make a mess. I also had a feeding tube inserted into my right nostril.

Pause again: I don’t want to think about how that works. The feeds were gross and have kind of stayed with me. Think off ice cream running down the back of your nose directly into your stomach.

During the 6 days, I had no awareness of any tube. They kept me sedated just enough to not have to deal with that horror show. I couldn’t talk but didn’t question why I couldn’t talk. I could write and I communicated with a flip chart and pen. I was aware of a bag that lay on my chest and quite often the nurse on duty manually worked what seemed like a pump in this bag. Its effect was to make me lose all air and search for the deepest longest breath, which in turn led to a plethora of far reaching coughs, horrid but effective.

“Adorable Andrew”. That’s what Jen called him. He seemed like the only nurse I had during this time. He was such a lovely caring chap who went well beyond his duties. He rang Jen, gave the family and friends updates on my condition, something they obviously craved. Thanks Andrew. We’ll never forget you for that.

So, what about my condition? Breaking news: First swab test came back negative. A+E Doctor, there she is again, insisted on a second test and that came back positive. I had Covid 19, but something else, I also had bilateral pneumonia (worse than just pneumonia), sepsis and a chest infection. My blood pressure had crashed, organs were under threat, I was officially critical but stable. The antibiotics and antivirals went to work. The first to bounce-back was the heart and blood pressure normalised. The blood infection showed some signs of improvement.

 I knew nothing of this until later. All I knew is that I was in hospital. I knew why, kind of, I knew I had a bag on my chest that a nurse would pump now and again which made me lose all oxygen and cough like a motherfucker. Ignorance, in this case, was probably bliss.

And then came the sixth night of the coma, the night I thought I was going to die. They say mind and body are connected. This was the night where my mind and body were disconnected. I remember I felt super uncomfortable, struggling for breath and afraid. Andrew was finishing his shift and even in my current state, I wrote down that I wanted him to stay. The nurse who took over was having none of it. Stern and probably exactly what I needed. She told Andrew to go home.

It transpired that my body was rejecting the tube, my body wanted to breath for itself, independently. My mind thought I was dying, my body wanted to live. In ICU my bed was put everywhere and anywhere. This night I was very close to consultants just sitting and chatting. I remembered Rich, and I remembered him looking over concerned at this particular episode. In what felt like minutes, I must have been put under.

I woke up on the following morning and the tube was out, still attached to a ventilator but the tube was out. The machines were still breathing for me and I had completely lost my voice.

Pause: Did I mention I’m a Voiceover Artist? I’m not joking.  

The consultants had a difficult decision to make that night. They saw the body rejecting the tube, but could I be trusted to breath without it? The information from Italy and China was to intubate for as long as possible, but was six days long enough? It was thought that in Italy the death rate was spiking because they were extubating (taking the tube out) too soon. They must have let my body decide.

I woke up to a group of masked consultants circling the bed and the instructions were clear – it was time to learn how to breath again. An oxygen mask was placed over my mouth, a very strange mask that forced a series of different breathing techniques. It had a number of flaps and you never knew which flap would open and force you to breath next. Best way to describe it: stick your head out the car window next time you’re doing 70 on the M25 and breathe. For the next 48 hours all I did was breathe and cough, breathe and cough. Before the consultants left, I was informed that I was making progress, and that, presently, I was their only success story to make it out of intubation. I was down to the one antibiotic for pneumonia. My job now was to teach my lungs how to breathe on their own. I wasn’t out of the woods. I just had to keep breathing.

I was focused. After WhatsApping the fam the latest developments I went into full breathe and cough mode. The mask made it impossible to sleep so I just focused on the breathing and the coughing. The cough’s job was to begin the clear out of all that dead tissue in the lungs and whatever gunk there was in my chest. This was trickier than it sounds.

Every time I coughed, which was every 5 minutes, all that gunk and god knows what would fill the mask. The nurse, bless her, removed the mask, cleared out the crap and then reattached the mask. This process was relentless and Gentle Geraldine, I’ll never forget you. Geraldine was on the night shift working in a pair with “Nurse Ratched”.

Little Pause: Even though I know “Nurse Ratched’s” real name, I’m not going to mention it, for the same reasons I gave earlier about criticising the NHS. In any place of work, there’s always one.

I knew from the second I met her, she was a bad egg. She started explaining how busy she was and what to expect through the night. I’d be better off sleeping was the clear instruction. The problem was the oxygen mask and the way it worked did not allow me to sleep. Luckily I had Geraldine for most of the night and as I mentioned she was naturally kind. Yeah she was pissed off that every few minutes she was clearing out the mask but when she did it she did it with a kindness. She knew how tough those coughs were, coughs that went to the very depths of my suffering lungs.

Because I couldn’t speak, we built up a cute clever way of communicating. I gently held her arm when she cleared out the mask and if I gave it a gentle squeeze she quickly understood that I was trying to get up another cough while the mask was off. Problems arose when Gentle Geraldine went on her break and “Nurse Ratched” took over. These were her words verbatim: “If you think I’m cleaning out that mask every 5 minutes you can forget it. You need to start swallowing whatever you cough up.” I tried to soften her. I started to write her questions. Have you got any kids? That kind of thing. She was just ice cold, didn’t want to know. I started to swallow and lasted maybe half an hour before I threw up what I swallowed directly into the mask.

Further little pause: How this affected my recovery who knows? Maybe not a jot. Gentle Geraldine returned in a few hours and we got back to our routine. Out of all the nurses I met, and I met loads, I’ll take one bad apple. For the sake of repeating myself, there’s always one.

Earlier I mentioned hallucinating. ICU, you were the trip. I guessed because of the heady mix of no sleep and serious drugs administered, it was a given. Orgies which consisted of male doctors only (I have a friend who’d want me to explore that further!). Doctors were putting on broadway shows. Shamen danced over the bodies of children who’d just been intubated because of Covid 19 and all of it happened through the window of the room next to me. I often turned to the nurse and wrote “sister, can you see what’s going on in that room?” I never got a straight reply like “Oh Barra, you’re just hallucinating”. Maybe that was part of the care. Don’t interrupt the hallucination. They were never scary, just kind of entertaining and I wasn’t absolutely convinced they didn’t happen!

The hallucinations began to change and morph into what doctors and nurses were saying to each other. I was tripping that the staff were slagging me off, making plans to shut me up, sick to the teeth of my constant coughing. I confronted some of the staff on this and I’m mortified. I was reassured that nobody planned to stitch up both ends of my body and hang me in the corner for the night.

Then there was Nurse Nice Eyes. The nurse who did something really human. Because of the sheer pressure of oxygen being forced into the mouth, the mask popped off now and again. Once this happened when nobody was around. For seconds I wasn’t getting any oxygen and panic was looming its ugly head when suddenly a random male nurse appeared and sorted it out. I could tell he had a sense of humour, smiling at the idea that if he hadn’t passed by, what could have happened.

He had lovely smiley eyes and via the flipchart I told him so. Then came the human bit. Remember, I hadn’t seen a face for over a week, maybe longer. Everyone was covered head to toe in PPE and of course that was right and essential. But this guy maybe recognised how difficult it was not seeing another human face for so long. He took a deep breath and removed his mask and showed me his face. I can’t remember his name, but I’ll never forget his face. He left and he must have read my notes because he came back curious about my name and where it came from. My name is Irish for something much more familiar and I made him have a guess. He got it first go, not many do. In fact, in 49 years of people guessing he’s one of just two. He told me he was off for a few days but when he came back he hoped to see far less machines around me, and more progress. He was just such a nice bloke.

Now a slight change of gear: One thing I’ve managed to avoid discussing so far are bowel movements and I bet you can’t wait. The pay-off is worth it. During the coma I guess it never happened?

What I discovered is that nurses don’t like two things in particular.:

1: No bowel movements.

2: Loss of control over your bowel movements.

Pause: I get it. Number 1 is an essential bodily function and number 2 is a seriously messy arse and bed that a nurse has to clean. Nobody wants that.

I hadn’t pooped for days, so I was prescribed an enema. “An injection of fluid into the lower bowel by way of the rectum.” I could do this. Come on, I’ve been in a coma for six days. I’ve been coughing up Covid 19 . I’ve been taking on bilateral pneumonia, sepsis and by all accounts I was still making progress. An enema? Please…

Up it went and I shat for Europe – I lost all control of my bowels and it just didn’t stop. Relentless. Conversations moved on quickly. Allegedly now I needed a catheter bag for my rectum. Got one in my dick, why not?  New experience number… I’ve lost count. This involved two nurses, though I’m pretty sure the other nurse was there just to have a laugh. To insert this bag into my rectum I turned on my left hand side, and lifted my right leg into the air. I’m sure I could see reception while this was happening and if I could see reception, reception could see me. On the count of three I was told to take a deep breath. I wish I had the voice to explain that I couldn’t. That’s why I’m in here love! I’ve never been fisted before but I’ll never fear a prostate examination for as long as I live. It wasn’t so much sore as it was surprising. What seemed like many bags were inserted and then something that felt like a screw top neatly closed up the rectum. I was ready for roasting. Along with the feeding tube, that one has stayed with me too, in fact that one has stayed a little bit longer.

Bigger Pause: While it’s in my head I’d like to discuss Lewisham ICU, its consultants, its nurses and other health care workers. Because of my views on Brexit I forgot that thing people call “The Best Of British”. In fact, over the last 3-4 years, personally I think we’ve seen “the worst of British”. I recognise this is my personal view and I’ll stop right there. But, in Lewisham ICU I was reminded of the very “Best”. From cleaners to consultants, they were the most extraordinary team under the most extraordinary pressure. Spare your expletives like “extraordinary” for the NHS and no one else. In that, of course, I include all the non-British workers. People who cared, people whose sole focus was your wellbeing and you getting better. The top consultants, male and female, reminded me of the guys in charge of digging Tom, Dick and Harry in The Great Escape. David Attenborough, Gordon Jackson, David McCallum, James Donald…exactly the kind of team you wanted in charge when it was life or death. They moved in groups of four or five and spent little, but effective, time at your bedside. They called me their only success story, the only one out of intubation who was showing signs of improvement. I couldn’t let them down. I wouldn’t let them down. They made me feel part of the team. It was so inspiring.

Around this time I developed a big thirst I needed to quench. One of the consultants told me I needed to slowly learn how to swallow again. This did unnerve me, but my desire for water was too great. The nurse on duty didn’t think I was ready, but I grabbed a consultant’s attention who agreed to let me have a go. It was an experience that made me weep. I took the tiniest sip from a bottle of water, swirled it round my mouth and I think I swallowed. I wasn’t able to feel where the water went. There was some concern it might go straight into the lungs, but no, it was the stomach. How did I know? I threw it up moments later. Water – I took it for granted but nothing brought me to tears like that first sip of water. I broke down into a sobbing mess. I was able to clean my mouth, satisfy my thirst, a real jump in independence. It felt like a moment.

Day “god knows what at this stage”. It was maybe around 9 days in hospital, not long extubated. I remember the ninth night. Something changed. I was still coughing, cleaning out the mask, coughing again, and still I wasn’t sleeping. For some reason I was curtained off. Consultants and nurses stared at this machine I was hooked up to. It read everything – oxygen levels, sats, temperature, and we were all fixated on its findings. It felt like last chance saloon. This is where I had to make things happen. Maybe I fell asleep, I don’t know, maybe it was another hallucination but I saw myself in a fight against two infections: chest and lung. For some reason my sole focus went onto the lungs. I saw myself climbing through the lungs, focusing on whatever Covid 19 dirt needed to be shifted, as if I was climbing a mountain and hacking at Covid 19 with an ice pick. The cough became more effective and the Covid 19 poison seemed to come up. The lungs felt clearer. Something in my breathing changed. The next morning I was off the ventilator and was being wheeled into recovery. The machines were gone. I was doing the breathing, with oxygen yes, but I was doing the breathing.

When I arrived there were 20 bodies intubated in ICU. Now there were 60, so recovery would happen wherever they could put me. I was wheeled into an unused, large pre-theatre room maybe, not so sure. It accommodated around 12 people and had the appearance of a room just abandoned.

It was just me and a new nurse and for about 2 hours it was so peaceful. I was rolled up next to a large window, with the sun beaming through. I had views of the Quaggy river and Lewisham train station, which seemed eerily quiet. I wasn’t made aware of what was happening in the outside world but I sensed a change, something was off. My voice was slowly returning and in surprisingly husky tones I asked the nurse. She filled me in on lockdown. I also sensed that not only were these two hours blissful for me but they were also pure bliss for the nurse. We chose a radio station to listen to, lunch from the menu, so chilled. The only thing missing was Netflix!

This fight against Covid 19 has been described as a war, and I can tell you Lewisham ICU was a war zone. After my brief two hours of bliss, a team of consultants burst into our safe heaven and duly informed the nurse that they were bringing ten new bodies with Covid 19 into this area and the place needed to be prepped and readied. They would need to be intubated shortly. Despite the PPE I saw the shock in the nurse’s eyes. “I’m alone here”, she said. She explained that she hadn’t been informed, that she would need more nurses, she needed help, support. The phone rang and a chat with Matron soon calmed her down. Help was on the way and promises were made. Once she hung up, she came to me and explained that I wouldn’t be getting attention for the foreseeable future. I was ok. I was independently cleaning out my mask with my own sucker (a tube that sucked like a really intensive hoover) and once I had my sucker and my water, I was alright.  

For the next few hours the very real tragedy of Covid 19 was laid out before me. I was pushed into a corner, mere metres away from what unfolded. It was no longer all about me and my journey. It was suddenly so much bigger, an insight perhaps to what was going on all around the world and I just sat there and watched, sometimes in awe, sometimes in disgust and all the time in fear.

What seemed like a stream of bodies came flooding in with a team of consultants. There were now two nurses, yes a whole two! They hooked up the bodies to drips, a vast variety of different tubes, and of course ventilators and machines were everywhere. While the nurses busied themselves the consultants began to intubate. I witnessed very real conversations about whose turn it was to put a tube in next, and if somebody was a novice, the very clear instructions on how to do it.

I watched and watched and watched. Amazed at how the team worked, pulled itself together with such short numbers of staff and large numbers of patients, all individually beginning their own fights, probably where I was about a week ago. The exposure to this work was humbling, and despite the enormous pressure I could see the job satisfaction. That nurse, despite her initial shock, now moved at speed and made things happen. More nurses arrived. The amount of set up for each patient was slow. It had to be, any wrong step and god knows. Things eventually began to settle. The patients were in place and attached to what they needed, for now. A sense of calm returned, and then a hallucination? Again, I wasn’t sure.

Gathering around one body in particular I saw a group of people arrive. I guessed family and what seemed like a high priest of sorts. What transpired was a ritual around this particular patient. I said to myself how can this be allowed? It lasted about ten minutes. They played and sang some gentle songs, said some prayers and performed some chants. One of the nurses came to see me and I asked, is that really happening? Her answer: “It would make you believe in the power of prayer”. Who knew, maybe her answer was another hallucination.

Earlier I mentioned Simon, he was the patient brought into the Covid 19 ward taking up the space left by Racist Roger  Let’s not waste any more breath on Roger, I haven’t got that much to spare.

I never thought I’d see Simon again after his brief wave and thumbs up in the ward. With two consultants, suddenly Simon turned up. He was awake, had recently been extubated so probably not long out of his present coma. He had a real energy about him. He seemed very alert for somebody whose tube was just out. We were mere metres apart and again the thumbs up and waving began. I gave him a thumbs up and a wave back, but something wasn’t right in the way he looked.

Once the consultants had left Simon in the care of the nurses, things took a very dark turn. He was determined. He wanted to die and nothing was going to stop him. He pulled out anything that was attached to him. Different tubes, oxygen, drips, feeds and it was relentless. Staff talked to him, sedated him more, but his energy was too strong. When he calmed down, it was for minutes. Quickly he rose again, and pulled everything out that had been re-inserted. He sat up and manoeuvred himself onto the side of his bed and this was when I got nervous. What if he managed to encroach my space? I started to counter move and got myself to my side of the bed but soon I realised neither of us were going anywhere. With catheter bags attached to both front and back nether regions, which were in turn attached to the bed, where was I going? The nurse talked him down. Simon even managed to grab an implement and took a swipe at one of the nurses.

It was constant and eventually after what seemed like hours, efforts were made to resuscitate him. They didn’t work.

Pause: Doctors have talked about possible PTSD after witnessing something like that face on, but I’m a fair few weeks in recovery now and feel, at least, psychologically ok.

Moments after Simon died I asked the nurse her opinion about why it happened. She told me I was naïve, that the world had changed beyond recognition out there and some people didn’t want to go back.

Soon, I heard rumblings of being moved back onto a ward. It took ages, it was now 11 0’Clock at night. In more positive news the catheter in the rectum had been removed.

As I was wheeled out of ICU and reminded that I was the only survivor to date out of intubation, I saw the bodies, how the numbers had trebled was all too obvious. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the people that probably saved my life until much later. I was out of ICU and another batch were on the way in and so the cycle went on, and on, and on.

Tiny Pause for thought: Lewisham ICU, you are a marvel, I’m embarrassed to say I ever worked a day in my life after seeing what you all do.

I was getting back onto a ward – me, myself and my oxygen, one catheter down. I still had a way to go. I was weak as a kitten but on the right path. I asked which ward was I going to? I was informed I was going back onto a Covid 19 ward.

That’s the moment I knew I had to get out of hospital and quick. Forget criticism, forget Public Health England and what they tell the NHS to do, but here was a patient recovering from Covid 19 being put back onto a high risk Covid 19 ward, and the risk of re-infection was very real. Nobody knew if you got anti-bodies and if you did if they provided you with any immunity. I didn’t want to deal with probabilities. I wanted to go home. I knew I couldn’t rush it. I knew I had to build up some strength. I had to get off my catheter and pass urine on my own. I had to eat solids and I had to get my sats up so I could get off the oxygen – and all this with no sleep. Sleeping on a ward was an impossibility. I thought to myself I could do this in two days.

Once on the ward I curtained myself off. Again I used a commode as we weren’t allowed to leave. I was eating, urinating and defecating in the same space. I asked the nurse for viral wipes, got them and kept my station as clean as I could. I ate everything they gave me, even the cornflakes with warm milk.

Little Feedback: Cornflakes with warm milk is a no-no and should not be an option on the NHS food menu.

The solids made me feel nauseous and swallowing was a slow process. I threw up a few times but managed to keep most of it down. When the doctor came to visit I made sure I sat in a chair and put my best face forward.

Physio wise, I didn’t stop – I walked around the bed, did squats and diaphragmatic breathing. Then there was the catheter, I knew they wouldn’t let me home until I could independently urinate. I kept asking the nurse to remove it. She said the doctor had to approve such a delicate procedure. A few hours later and a male nurse appeared. “I’m here to remove the catheter, you can scream and squirm as much as you like”. Agony – and then I tried to urinate. Imagine the worst possible thrush. I passed blood the first few times and then unbridled joy. I saw urine pass. Still painful but clear.

Please note: I did all this with pleurisy, when the chest rubs up against the lung because everything has been inflamed. Think knife slowly inserted, in my case, just below the rib cage on my left hand side and sometimes around the back. Deep diaphragmatic breathing exercises and bad pleurisy were not easy bedfellows. It prevented you going deeper and slowed recovery.

I knew the patients around me all had Covid 19. I knew from the sound of their coughs. They were making the phone calls I was making 2 weeks ago, those impossible conversations with friends and family. Mentally I was in a bad place. My whole focus was discharge. In the night I contacted my buddy Cal and told him to come to the window of the ward. We were two floors up and I had the location down. I told him I could climb it. His reply? “maybe not Barra!”.

Then there was much welcome relief. The nurse told me that she saw notes on my file which said I could be discharged in the next few days. I had a chance. More physio and once I got wind of the doctor’s arrival, I made sure I was sitting up in the chair, and again best face forward. To be fair the Doctors wanted me out. They knew the risks of being back on a Covid 19 ward but I had to pass certain tests.

1: Walk the ward: slight wobble but not enough to fail.

2: 10 squats: nailed it.

3: Blood pressure: I did some breathing exercises while the nurse got the kit. I got my heart rate down and the reading was a thumbs up.

4: Breath without oxygen and maintain sats between 95 and 100%: I was left alone for an hour and the readings held.

During these final hours I received a message. The A+E Doctor sent me a note. She said how delighted she was I made it through and how thrilled the whole hospital was that they had a success, a recovery from intubation. She who remained nameless because I couldn’t remember, thank you. A doctor who I clearly misjudged because of fear, understandable fear, but it’s important to put the record straight.

Discharge letter was on its way. Last minute hitch? Always a fecking last minute hitch. Nobody knew how to exit me safely from hospital to home. One Doctor argued I was still contagious, another doubted his diagnosis. Another said I had anti-bodies and should be immune from a second infection, again another doubted his diagnosis. They discussed organising a special ambulance, maybe a taxi?  Nobody knew and “therein lies the rub”.

Late evening was fast approaching and the thought of staying another night made me sweat. I had the discharge letter, my bag was packed. I decided to leave and wobbled out. I honestly believe that’s what the doctors were waiting for. If the patient has made the decision to leave we couldn’t stop him – it took the un-makeable decision out of their hands.

I was escorted to the front of the building by a nurse. I was wearing a hoody, pyjama bottoms, socks and sandals. I said to myself: “it’s just one sandal in front of the other”. I was freezing. Reception called me a cab and £6 later I was home. I was swabbed just before I left and until the results were in who knew, Covid 19 could still be lurking. It did put into question the merits of getting me a cab. Maybe policy has changed as in the NHS might actually now have one when it comes to a patient’s exit whose recovered from Covid 19. I did catch a press conference a few nights later and saw Michael Gove say that there were exit strategies in place for such patients. He made my pleurisy worse because he made me laugh.

Really tiny Pause: Do these politicians forget people on the front line see things?

I was home. Weak but home. One thing I missed about hospital? The pain relief. Nothing beat the effects of intravenous paracetamol. Jen was worried. The pleurisy got worse and catching a breath through the pain was hard. It was agreed that I’d been discharged maybe 3-4 days too soon. 72 hours ago I was still in ICU but look, I couldn’t stay on a Covid 19 ward. People were re-infecting and I couldn’t be one of them.

Present day and the recovery has been slow. I’m home. Jen, the kids, family and friends have been so supportive. I do my breathing exercises, I eat like a horse (thanks Jen). The pleurisy has subsided. I can now spend some time in the garden. I can handle the stairs. I’m a little stronger every day and I’ll take that.

Rebuilding the lungs and clearing the chest is a constant and could go on for months. My breathing exercises (six times a day) are geared around making you cough and the fluid that comes up fills around an 8th of a cup, every time. Yes, I have to spit it all into a cup, for good reason. I have to keep an eye on its colour. Medics are seeing that Covid 19 is leaving some recovered patients with a nasty bacterial chest infection. If the phlegm is white it’s viral and all is well. If the phlegm becomes any other colour it’s probably a chest infection and further antibiotics will be required. So far so white!

When I got home I had to self-isolate for the first 14 days but the swab result did come back and allegedly I’m now Covid 19 free. Mind you, it’s left plenty of scars, some visible. I’m not sure I’ll ever be Covid 19 free.

It’s hard physically and emotionally, especially in that first week home. Not being able to say goodbye to the people who saved you prevents proper closure. I did get a message into Lewisham ICU, a message of thanks and I included a tune. The Pogues’ “Rainy Night In Soho” has always been a favourite and just like Shane McGowan sings, we may never find out what the song means. For me though, I now understand its meaning. It’s about my time in ICU. It’s about my relationship with all those members of staff.

Take the lyrics: “I’ve cried for all your troubles, smiled at your funny little ways. I took shelter from a shower and I stepped into your arms. I sang you all my sorrows, you told me all your joys.” (I often went on about my hardships and staff in turn tried to cheer me up.) “Sometimes I’d wake up in the morning, the ginger lady by my bed, covered in a cloak of silence, I’d hear you talking in my head.” (That lyric reminds me of the nurse, covered in PPE and my own hallucinations.) “There’s a light I hold before me, and you’re the measure of my dreams”. (This is exactly how I feel about Lewisham ICU)

I received a reply from the Matron of ICU. She had passed on my message to all staff and that gave me some closure. Once I can I will rock up in person. I’ve promised copious amounts of Irish Whisky and I will deliver (as I did some time later).

NHS were recently in touch. They want my blood plasma to test for anti-bodies and if I have them they’ll want blood donations to help with poorly patients. I’m in. I think of me lying in ICU and what it somebody’s blood could have helped me during that time.

I want to finish with a bit of science. For obvious reasons Covid 19 has consumed me and I consider myself well read on the subject. What’s grabbed me though is the connection between Covid 19 and genetic weaknesses that some medics believe could be the case. I think I’m living proof.

For me, Covid 19 ignited pneumonia. Something my Grandfather, on my Mother’s side, suffered from and then today I’ve just found find out that he had caught Spanish flu in 1921. Genes skip a generation. I’m following in my Grandfather’s footsteps. It was always a fait accompli. Thanks Grand-dad. Never mind the good looks and the debonair dashing smile you could have handed down. I guess, a near death experience, catching a deadly virus in a pandemic and bilateral pneumonia will have to do.

Right, I’m done but not without 4 salient bullet points that spring to mind. I love a bullet point.

1: Never take our NHS for granted.

2: Don’t believe a word that comes out of a Politician’s mouth.

3: Don’t underestimate Covid 19. It’s cunning and crazy contagious.

4: Thank fuck I’m alive.

Thanks for reading. Writing it down has been massively cathartic.


8 Responses to The COVID-19 Diary of Barra Fitzgibbon, aged 49 and a bit.

  1. Neil Harris says:

    WOW. Just WOW!

    Incredibly insightful and emotional to read this Barra. Thank you for that and the absolute best in your recovery.

    Neil x

  2. Toria says:

    This is such a raw and moving account Barra. Just very relieved that you have battled through it. Wishing you a speedy recovery. A truism that even in the very worst of times, the best of humankind can shine through.

  3. Marly says:

    So pleased to hear of your recovery. My partner is one of the senior staff in Lewisham A&E, it’s so sad that they are often treated as an afterthought. I know how concerned they were for you and how hard they worked to get everything done so you could progress, as you note the unnamed Dr called you. You remained in their thoughts and they followed your progress.

    A&E staff rarely receive the plaudits they deserve, no bottles of whiskey, chocolates or even thanks for saving peoples’ lives. It’s understandable that most people recognise their longer stay on a ward or department like ICU but few people recognise they wouldn’t get there if not for the hard work and sometimes the fight required from doctors and nurses who remain unnamed and are not celebrated, as in your get people into the right departments.
    Yes, I am biased and as someone who was a nurse, I know how talented they are how hurtful it is for A&E staff to be an afterthought.

  4. RON NORRIS says:

    Thanks,what a great piece of writing this is. It tells the truth of living with Covid 19 and surviving it.
    And the NHS ,BRILLIANT.

  5. Gaynor Bailey says:

    This is amazing, thank you Barra.

  6. Dan says:

    What an extremely moving read.

    Everyone should read this.

    So glad you pulled through Barra – Some good news at last!

  7. Liz says:

    It’s an amazing read Barra must have made you more philosophical about life and worlds current problems. I was struck how fearful young nurses and junior Drs must have been in those earlier months – now it must be a relentless 12 hr shift they go through. I’m hearing similar from a friend on a US medical team. God must love you honestly!

  8. Catherine Davies says:

    I’m in tears, what an awful experience and thank you so much for sharing. I do hope you are well now. Your account is really moving. You should publish it. Love to Jen.

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