I don’t want to go on ann on about Covid as I last mentioned it a couple of posts ago. Nearly a year ago. But for me, this is an anniversary story , a tale from the pre-vaccine, pre-omicron era, when things were slightly different from how they are today. All the fragments I wrote during the first lockdown are faintly apocalyptic (or at the very least novel), because we didn’t know what was going to happen, or how all this would end. Also unreal, because the apocalypse wasn’t actually happening. For some of us of course it did. For me, Cathryn and Matthew, there was no tragic ending but the last days of 2020 and the first of 2021 did mark the end of a chapter in our lives. Now we’re in the midst of a new crisis I can’t help thinking of this time last year. I guess you could say it’s local history.
- The Menu Planner
Every year since .. I don’t know.. Cathryn has written a menu planner for the Christmas / New Year fortnight, some more elaborate than others. This dates from the time when everything in the outside world was closed for several days around Christmas. The fridge is still full to capacity at this time even though you can go to the shops from Boxing Day onwards. The planner is attached to the fridge with magnets, along with relevant recipes, and other purely decorative items. For 2020 it also serves as a prompt for my memory.
The consensus in the flat on Christmas Day was that I had brought home some kind of flu. We all felt a bit rough in a non-specific way. There was no hint of any of the advertised tell tale signs of Covid 19. But it was a bit odd that we were all at the same stage of whatever it was. We got through Christmas dinner and opening presents all right. Just a bit low key. No-one was particularly annoyed that the tree and decorations were absent. That should have told me something.
Looking back at the menu planner I seem to have cooked what I was supposed to have cooked. and the holiday season proceeded…. or did it? Matthew thinks that I didn’t follow the planner at all, but that we actually grazed on cold meat and buffet type food from the fridge. His story is that I was clearly ill on Christmas Day with a cough (I don’t remember that) which he and Cathryn had the next day, suspiciously quickly. I followed the plan on Boxing Day but wasn’t very happy with the results.
We watched the first episode on DVD of a crime series that had been on Sky. I have been known to nod off occasionally when watching TV but this was the first occasion when I realised it had ended and we had all spent part of the running time asleep. (I have the ability to wake up as the credits are running, and appear as though I watched the whole thing.) We have never attmpted to watch this DVD again.
2. The Fall
This is a date I’m sure of: 29th December. A man was coming to fix our washer /dryer. He was coming early in the morning, about 7.30 so I decided to just stay up. We keep pretty late nights. Cathryn and Matthew had just gone to bed. I got up off the sofa to go to the kitchen, or the toilet. I’m sometimes unsteady on my feet and have tripped in the street a few times in recent years. (Once crossing the road at Fulham Broadway. Two kind young people hauled me to my feet. Once round the corner from our flat during lockdown- No-one to come and help you then.) I lost my balance and bounced off one wall, into another which had a pile of books against it. Once on the floor these books rained down on me. I couldn’t seem to get to my feet. I remember thinking what a way for a librarian to go – imprisoned under a pile of books. Of course I had a way out. I called out to Cathryn and asked her to get Matthew up to help me (she ‘s disabled so couldn’t do anything personally). Which he did. In a confined space this was more difficult than I thought but he managed it. The books ended up in a handy box and I was deposited back on the sofa at about 6am. (Remember, most accidents happen in the home, as the Grim Reaper will remind you when he knocks at the door.)
I announced that I had to remain on the sofa indefinitely and would Matthew let the repair man in please? He humoured the old fellow and supervised the visit. I used to scoff at plans with annual payments for white goods but have become a convert in recent years. (I was called up recently and asked if I would like to add the dishwasher to the plan. I replied that I was the dishwasher. I would have asked if I could get covered by the plan and get an upgrade: Dave 2.0 but I thought better of it. The people who phone you up have a job to do after all, and probably don’t need flippancy.)
It never once occurred to me as the sun came up and I sat on the sofa that perhaps this fall was a symptom of something. It does at least provide a date. After that day I think I must have had the Kent (now Alpha) variant of Covid-19.
Matthew also had a moment around this time. His legs gave way after getting up from the toilet. Fortunately, the toilet is conveniently narrow at this point and supported him. We were at a stage ,we thought, of riding the disease out. So Matthew got back to his chair. We had run out of paracetamol so he found a pharmacy which delivered. A man on a motorcycle came, so there was no need to leave the flat.
3. The Samurai
Cathryn wasn’t well. At this point we were still thinking flu, not Covid, but she has form with respiratory conditions, so I was watching out for signs of anything worse. She was mostly sleeping, but what was I doing? Was I dozing on the sofa, or watching TV? What was Matthew doing? We were both convinced that Cathryn’s condition was unusual. At some point one us called 111, but later Matthew was calling an ambulance. In one of those conversations he had to work quite hard to convince the person he was talking to (somewhere out of London) that they should send someone..
The two ambulance guys came as a bit of a surprise for Cathryn and she didn’t want to go. She really didn’t want to go. (She actually thought they had come for me) But eventually they and Matthew prevailed. I hung about a bit in the background. I decided that my role would be to take the blame. Cathryn doesn’t remember the journey apart from the cold air when they entered the Chelsea Westminster Hospital through some unexpected entrance. She isn’t sure where she went exactly. She remembers a “plastic room” which seemed to have been created by partitioning a corridor. She was still trying to convince them that she should go home when a doctor told her she should be glad she was there. Either that night or the next day someone told her that it had been touch and go for a while. She was getting oxygen through a C-PAP machine, which she was used to as a treatment for sleep apnea. She recalls a conversation about signing a DNR.
She isn’t sure where she slept that night but eventually she found herself in a room overlooking Netherton Grove. (A cul-de-sac on the western side of Chelsea Westminster Hospital) There was a balcony with many plants. It became apparent that a samurai warrior stood in the undergrowth. His job was to guard her. I’m glad he was there. He faded away in daylight but returned for one more night. She looked for him later but he had evidently returned to wherever he came from, his task completed. Cathryn is infamous in the family for seeing faces in curtains and other surfaces. Call it pattern recognition, rather than hallucination.
Matthew and I sank back into the general detritus of Christmas knowing that Cathryn was safe (but probably annoyed). I slept on the sofa. The following day it occurred to us that neither of us were very well either. There was a further phone call from me to either 111 or a Covid hotline (it was beginning to dawn on us). The person I spoke to was impressed, I think, by how incoherent I was. It was decided that some kind of visit was needed. A personable but impossibly young fellow with a backpack turned up. He was called Andrei. I was convinced he was Italian but I’m not really a reliable witness at this point. He tested Matthew’s SATs with an oximeter and they were in the toilet, alarmingly so in fact. It was a wonder that Matthew was still conscious. Mine weren’t much better. He called for two ambulances. So a total of four women were then in our living room. It was Matthew who had the presence of mind to bring our phones and a charger. But we both left in whatever we were wearing at the time. Two ambulances waited for us outside.
I’ve already written briefly about my week long stay in hospital. Once the medication started to work my mental equilibrium returned. I had access to television and was occasionally allowed to go down the long corridor to see Matthew and Cathryn who were both on C-PAP machines initially. One particular nurse handled most of these excursions. I won’t name her here, because all the medical staff did a good job., but I’d like to thank her especially, for going the extra mile, not only with me but with Cathryn.
I can’t say I was ever worried particularly, and I went from being mildly disturbed to being bored with the routine quite quickly. But as I’ve said, I was not an entirely reliable witness. I was given a large number of pills including the well known Dexamethasone along with unknown antibiotics (the fact that I don’t know is continuing evidence of my mental state – normally I am obsessive about medication.) I spent much of my time alone so I assume I spent a lot of time watching daytime TV. There was a lot of coverage of Covid and later there seemed to be something going on in Washington, but all the television I watched in this period seems to have had a background of melancholy.
I didn’t know how seriously ill I was, (a bit of pneumonia, I was told although I didn’t feel that bad) but I’m sure it would have been quite worse had we not been in hospital. Towards the end of the week Matthew and I were moved to another ward with adjacent beds. In our turn we persuaded doctors to let us go, and we went home one after the other, back to the flat after a Christmas that was hardly there. I left the hospital in a pair of borrowed pajama trousers, a t shirt and a dressing gown. Fortunately, we’re not far from the hospital. I curled up on the sofa and watched the Star Trek movie about the whale. Matthew’s departure was slightly easier. Of course, once we were home, we were both still vague and disconnected. We discovered German kebabs, a concept suitable for disconnected times. Cathryn was let out one evening a couple of days later. The whole business seemed to have been a short sharp shock.
When I went out to the local shop the people in it looked like strangers, extras in a different story, not survivors like me (or so I felt). I couldn’t believe how calm they were. I never could understand how unconcerned people around me were.
It was not the end of our dealings with the hospital. We had signed up for a post-Covid study and were able to spend time with medical staff who were interested enough in our progress to do many tests and scans, which told a more objective story. The scans of our lungs were particularly instructive.
6. What did we learn?
We had no idea of how ill we were. That’s the essence of our Covid story. We reached out to a beleaguered NHS, not quite knowing what was going on, and they took us in and looked after us. They did that for a great many people in this country.
This all happened a couple of variants ago, in the pre vaccination era. Some people then seemed to think the whole thing was a hoax or a conspiracy. All I can say from my own experience, is that it wasn’t. I think that having Covid, or having a close friend or relative who has had it is one of those experiences that divides us into two camps.
We’ve been through a lot this year, medically speaking. The Alpha variant is history. It looks like its successor, Delta, has gone the same way. We’ve had vaccines and boosters. Those first visits to medical centres and (in Matthew’s case) colleges are also part of the historical narrative. The story is less of an apocalypse. But let me get back to you on that in a future year.
I wouldn’t claim to have had long Covid but I think it did take me a long while to feel entirely myself again. I don’t want to over share but I’ve had another continuing complaint this year. I once jokingly referred to this period in life as the hospital years not realising how true that was. I’m probably still not myself, but maybe a reasonable facsimile.
I hope you all had a safe Christmas. It’s not my favourite time of year. I would prefer it to happen in summer so perhaps on some level I belong in the southern hemisphere. Just a thought.
Finally, my thank sagain to my friend Isabel who was a lifeline at the end of the phone during my hospital stay. This is a detail of our Christams tree from 2021.