Do you remember New Year 2019? Did you talk about your hopes, your plans, your dreams? 2020. Such a nice number. We were months away from a new addition to the family, holidays were booked, just about to launch a new business, life was good.
Do you remember when you first heard of the new virus in China -just when it began to circulate? A virus that had jumped from animals to humans. Were you worried? Ebola, SARS, AIDs - the news is often full of outbreaks in far distant countries. You watch. You listen. Maybe you donate to an appeal, but they don’t really worry you, do they?
So, we collectively carried on into 2020, trudging through the winter months, not paying much attention to what was beginning to happen as the virus began to spread. Did you notice when it arrived in Europe? Maybe not, as here in the UK life went on as normal or so it appeared. Were our politicians watching the unfolding crisis? Making plans for if the virus arrived here? Preparing us all for what might happen?
February half term arrived, and families left for their annual ski holidays to the mountains of Italy and France. Visiting countries where the virus had begun to take hold – were you worried yet? Cases across the country began to be reported – small numbers, mostly people returning from abroad, then suddenly, in early March, the UK had their first two reported fatalities, no need to worry though they were both elderly so wasn’t it just to be expected? After all it’s just the same as flu.
The Government advised self-isolation for coughs and fevers, stay off the cruise ships if you were over 70 or had an underlying health condition, cancel all trips if you were a school, but still the numbers crept up. And then it became serious. Within one-week in mid-March, the theatres, restaurants, pubs were closed. The government advised against all non-essential travel. Operations were cancelled. GP’s remote working and then finally all schools were closed, exams cancelled and the whole country was advised to work from home where possible.
Panic buying set in – toilet rolls, hand sanitiser, thermometers in short supply, still no flour or icing sugar and dried pasta nowhere to be seen. Supermarkets unable to keep up with demand for online delivery slots. Everyone locked up - allowed out for just one exercise daily. The roads quiet, shops closed, grass growing longer and longer, everyone at home watching Netflix or the news as the virus began to claim victims every day - spreading unchecked across all corners of the UK.
We entered the new world of working from home – Zoom calls, home learning software, early starts, late finishes. Early morning walks to keep your distance – making new friends as the days went on. Skype with the family to see your new granddaughter, check up on your parents, laugh at the difficulties in getting whatever items were currently short, thinking up alternatives to toilet rolls. The sun shone. The garden was full of the sounds of children playing and having fun. Life was different, very different, but we were all safe and managing and hoping that things would improve quickly, but then, for us, everything changed.
Saturday 4th April. Two weeks into lockdown. A 2 am phone call. ‘We’re in a bit of trouble here…’.
You know you shouldn’t go down to their house, but you do and try to keep a safe distance whilst reassuring them. Five hours until the paramedics arrive who find dangerously low oxygen levels and take him away. The reality of the Covid virus means you watch from a distance unable to say goodbye or find out what is happening. The ambulance leaves to find a hospital bed and you hear nothing until late afternoon the following day when you finally manage to track them down and find out where they are and if they are still alive.
An early morning call the following day confirms a positive Covid test, double pneumonia and just a 20% chance of survival. Not suitable for ICU they will just be kept ‘comfortable’ on the ward. Will you give your permission for some experimental treatment? The staff, in a hospital filled with Covid patients, so busy they have no capacity to keep relatives informed of developments so you sit at home phoning each other trying hard not to think of what appears to be inevitable.. Phone calls to your closest friends and family trying to make sense of a situation which seems so unreal. Tears and tears. No one to hug you. No one to comfort you.
Days pass without any real news. A phone call to the ward each day. He’s still ‘comfortable’ but "could you bring in his mobile phone?". A visit to the hospital to find wards sealed off with hazard tape, a solitary visitor crying softly on the stairs and corridors full of medical staff in masks and suits. Knock and leave the phone at the door. No one goes in. Not everyone comes out. And suddenly everything changes.
Three calls a day – ‘I’m still here. I’m ok. We lost another last night’. Unable to move – on permanent oxygen. Delirium from the infection. Hallucinations. Fear. Distraught as yet another patient loses the fight. Despair when in confusion he thinks the young man, just 25, bought in in the night and dead by the morning, is his grandson. No one can visit. No one to support him in a nightmare world of desperately ill patients being looked after by hard working staff in so much PPE that all you can see is their eyes.
And there is just you. You talk to him daily. You support the rest of the family. You try to stay positive and keep them all informed. Choosing not to tell many people as the nightly update to everyone is another drain of your emotions. And the phone calls. Confusion due to delirium. Calls wanting you to say goodbye to everyone. Calls to tell you of the great Covid conspiracy. Calls wanting to come home. So many calls wanting to come home. "Can you source some oxygen just to get me home?".
Then you get the ‘call’. Time is up. Deterioration. Matter of hours. Do you want to come and watch? Stand at the end of the bed in your hazmat suit and watch. More phone calls. Hours of phone calls, while you try to help everyone else get through. Tears and more tears then silence. 15 hours later and the phone rings. Finally, stay strong, be brave, but the caller display is his mobile number. ‘I’m still here. I’m ok.’
Three weeks in, something of a miracle happens and he begins to improve. Oxygen levels stabilising. Good results from scans, but unable to move or walk. They desperately need the bed so it’s time to leave. Three weeks. Ten deaths in his small ward. Nightly witnessing someone else lose their life, but seeing the dignity and love shown by the nursing staff ensuring each one passed peacefully with someone holding their hand.
Not well enough to come home, he is moved to a rehab unit full of recovering Covid patients. Ten weeks of care and support to help him get back on his feet and regain some of the health he had before. Visits now allowed through windows and doors. He gets to see his great granddaughter again – just one month old when he took ill. A birthday spent inside with friends dropping off trifles and sweets and gifts for his carers. A television to pass the days and a physio who is determined to get him walking again. Hoists and wheelchairs, Zimmer frames and crutches and slow, slow improvements. A new beard, scabs and scars from oxygen masks and cannulas and clothes that no longer fit, but always a smile and a laugh and concern for the rest of us.
A phone call and this time he’s coming home. So many recovering Covid patients in need of rehab, its time to leave. The fit healthy man who left 13 weeks ago is now disabled and unable to walk far. Teams of people visit, alterations to rooms, stairlift fitted, care packages. Life is very different, but he’s still here and he’s recovering .
Five months later and life is very different. Small improvements, but he’s still housebound with numerous small niggly medical problems and chronic fatigue. Long Covid. Maybe you haven’t heard of it? Affecting all ages and people who have had the virus in various degrees, but now find themselves unable to lead a normal life. A virus so new that that the medical profession can’t really tell you if he will ever be fully well again. And he is described as the best improved of the most serious Covid cases Wigan had had. The biggest success the rehab unit had seen.
Visitors can come, then they can’t. Rules of six prevent us all getting together. Local lockdowns and the virus beginning to creep up again. Do you believe its real? Do you think it’s a conspiracy to keep us all under state control? No one’s making you wear a mask or keeping you at home. Natural selection? And isn’t it just like flu? He was completely asymptomatic until he collapsed with dangerously low oxygen levels and we nearly lost him. Safely at home for more than two weeks yet he still managed to catch it and sadly he is just one of millions. Four million new carers – four million new people to be cared for.
So, you stop. And you breathe. You worked every day throughout the nightmare, supported your family, managed the situation. Breathe and look around. Look at your life. What is important? Did lockdown change you? It certainly changed me. Do I need all the things I have? Do I want to go back to pre-lockdown having no time to think as I managed all the things around me?
Life is about making choices and I choose to live differently. I want to spend the time I have with my family and my friends. I want to do the things in life I want to do – take care of my family, start a new business, bake, sew, walk, be outside whatever the weather, read books, play games, and photograph everything. I choose a different life.
I chose to leave my steady, reliable job and take a chance. Instead of a daily routine that left little time for living, you will find me spending time with my granddaughter, supporting my family, and trying to make a difference to the world. Chris has made a change too, he chose to go on a permanent 4 day week, less money, but so much more of that priceless commodity, time.
My new business is starting to grow. I have time to be with the people who supported me through the worst five months of our lives. Life is very different. I am grateful to everyone who saved his life. All the family and friends who supported me with messages, flowers, cards, bags of fruit from their trees and especially those who took the time to pray. I see those around me whose constant love and friendship kept me and my family going through such a difficult time and I am grateful for every one of them.
And we are lucky. The gift of time has been given to my family. Time with a loved one we thought we had lost. I looked at my life and I chose something different.