Coronavirus wiped me out

John is 35 and before he caught coronavirus, was in good health. He was fit, a keen footballer and used to being on his feet 10 hours a day. He’s now left with continuing fatigue and breathlessness.

On 19 March, I started coughing. The next day, I didn’t go into work. By 1pm I had a fever of 38 degrees, which lasted for 5 days, but was manageable with paracetamol.  My family and I knew we had to self-isolate, and I spent the first 5 days outside in our garden annexe, only coming into the house to use the toilet and to shower. I slept most of the time. I wasn’t hungry at all, but carried on eating what I could, as I knew my body would struggle more if I didn’t.

Once the fever had passed, I felt a lot better. I’m normally very active and after spending 7 days cooped up, I wanted to do something physical. I tried gardening, but it made me feel incredibly breathless. My breathing problems continued, and I could hardly walk up a flight of stairs.

I rang my GP on the 30 March, and he checked my breathing over the phone. For example, he asked me to take a deep breath and count to 20 as fast as possible, but I could only manage to count to 12 before having to stop to get my breath back. My GP told me to go to hospital straight away. I walked up the stairs to get a bag with some clothes for going to the hospital. When I got to my bedroom, I had to hold onto the wardrobe, as I lost my vision for a short time, all the while breathing heavily.

This was a difficult time for me and my family. I found it especially difficult saying ‘bye’ to my wife and children while they stood at the other end of the hall. I was going to hospital and believed that about half of people admitted to intensive care were dying.

Testing positive for coronavirus

When I went to the hospital, I was given a face mask and asked to sit in the ‘COVID-19’ area. For some reason, I was told by reception I would only get tested if I worked for the NHS. Honestly, I didn’t care much about the test! I knew I had coronavirus, and I was only worried about my breathing and oxygen levels. While I sat waiting, I was breathing like I was running.

I was called into a room that was set up specially for COVID-19 patients. I was asked to remove my t-shirt and the doctor watched me breathing on the chair. The doctor and nurses were surprised at my oxygen levels – despite feeling so breathless, I had blood oxygen levels of 98%! I’m a care worker, so I had a swab test for coronavirus. Other nurses were watching, so they could learn how to administer the test too. The doctor looked at my lung X-rays and told me straight away I had COVID-19. While I was in hospital, I apologised to the doctors and nurses whenever I coughed and thanked them for everything they were doing. They were wearing full PPE.

I was sent home because my symptoms meant I could stay at home. I got a call 2 days after the test in the hospital confirming I’d tested positive. We were told to isolate as a family for another 7 days. We isolated until the 9 April, when I returned to work. By that point, my family and I had isolated for almost 3 weeks in total. We quite enjoyed isolation and sticking to the rules. The longer it went on, the more we got used to it. We even enjoyed home-schooling the kids!

We luckily had quite a bit of food in stock, and my wife’s parents live nearby, so could drop things round, like bread and milk. The rest of my family didn’t get ill, or at least they didn’t show any symptoms.

I couldn’t taste a thing

As well as persisting breathlessness, I also lost my sense of taste and smell. My ability to taste returned after about 3 weeks. But my sense of smell has only now just started to return, after about 3 months. I’ve been using a nasal spray to try and encourage it! Having no taste was horrific. At one point I had a Bombay bad boy pot noodle and added all the chilli sauce, powder and flakes just to try to taste something. I ate it and couldn’t taste a thing. I didn’t even feel the burn in my throat or my stomach.

I also found drinking cold drinks painful. Even now, I prefer drinks at room temperature. I also find drinking just a bit of alcohol makes me feel breathless. On the Saturday before my birthday, my wife and I had a few drinks – I could only manage a few beers and had to stop because of my breathing. I was drunk after just a few drinks, which is not like me.

Another symptom I experienced was testicular pain. I know some people might not feel comfortable talking about that, but I think it’s important it’s spoken about. The previous year I’d had a vasectomy and experienced a similar sharp pain, so I assumed it was something to do with that. But after searching online, I saw a few reports of it listed as rare symptom of COVID-19.

The mental health side of things has been tough too. I’ve experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression because of what I went through. And it’s affected my family too. I think the hardest part has been when – several times – my 7-year-old asked my wife: ‘Is daddy going to die?’

I pushed through the fatigue and went back to work

On 9 April, I went back to work. I was still breathless and very fatigued but did my best to work through it. After a month, I helped restrain a client in work, and was overwhelmed by breathlessness afterwards. I spoke to my GP who sent me to hospital to check for blood clots in my lungs.

Luckily the scan, X-ray, blood samples and MRI all came back clear, but my work told me to stay at home for a while. I was off work for another month, but followed the advice of the doctors in the hospital to keep as active, so I did gardening and jobs outside. I rest when I’m tired and avoid overexertion.

I’m getting better, but there’s a way to go

Before the virus, I was fit and healthy. I played football and I would be on my feet at work all day. But the viral fatigue of COVID has just wiped me out randomly. I have days when I feel normal, then there are days when I am coughing or exhausted or breathless. Before COVID-19, I would have done DIY work for 10-12 hours a day. It’s taken 3 months and I’m still a long way away from that.

Recently I’ve been feeling better, so tried carrying some flat-pack furniture up the stairs. I ended up lying on the floor breathing extremely heavily for about 10 minutes before my wife helped me up. She thought she was going to have to phone an ambulance.

It’s been 3 months and my sleep still hasn’t returned to normal. There are times I find it difficult to sleep, and then there are times like the other night went to bed at 7.30pm and slept straight through for 11 hours. That would have been unheard of before, as I used to sleep 5-7 hours a night and wake naturally at 6-7am each morning.

I used to vape, but stopped on 19 March. I haven’t had any cravings until quite recently – 3 months after stopping. But I definitely won’t go back to it. I’m not going to breathe anything down into my lungs other than fresh air!

I now know when I feel tired, I need to rest. I don’t push myself then – I’ve learnt to take it easy when I need to. I still sometimes get coughing fits that are so exhausting that I need to lie down afterwards, but they’re getting less often.

John describes some tests he had, but doctors are now using different tests with their experience of coronavirus.

If you weren’t admitted to hospital and still have symptoms 12 weeks after you had coronavirus, get in touch with your GP to ask for a chest X-ray.

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If you’d like to share your story of recovering from Long COVID, please get in touch.

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17 February 2021