‘My lungs felt like they were going to explode if I coughed’

Nikki, a physiotherapist who helps people with breathing problems, shares her experience of having Covid and recovering.

Just before lockdown, I developed symptoms that felt like I was getting a cold. Or it could have been I was very tired after a weekend away with friends to celebrate my birthday! From time to time I was shivering, and I lost my appetite. I didn’t want any food because everything tasted very metallic.

The next day I developed a temperature which fluctuated from 37.5 to 39.9 degrees, a sinus-type painful headache and lots of episodes of diarrhoea despite having had no food. Trying to eat anything made me gag – my throat felt so dry it was difficult to swallow. At this stage, my GP thought I had gastric flu and when I called NHS 111, they didn’t reckon I had COVID-19 either, because I didn’t have a cough.

I drifted in and out of heavy sleep for 20 hours a day

During the next week, I drifted in and out of heavy sleep for about 20 hours every day – and when I woke up I was shivering and had a temperature of 39.9 degrees. The most food I could manage was a small biscuit or a few spoonfuls of jelly. In the end, it was so much effort, I stopped trying to force the food down and didn’t eat at all. During the night I’d struggle downstairs to get a cold drink, but would get severely dizzy and have to lie on the sofa or floor before I could try to get back upstairs.

In the light of this, my GP was now sure I had COVID-19. I went to A&E, as I felt so unwell. My daughter took me in her car at 6 in the morning. The usually bustling A&E (where I had worked) was empty and I was seen straightaway. I was so grateful they got me in so quickly, as I felt so unwell and I couldn’t have sat in a waiting room for long. They gave me fluids intravenously for around 2-3 hours and I was sent home feeling slightly better. Once home, I had a bath and went to bed.  

I hadn’t really believed I actually had COVID-19 and was shocked when the doctor told me. But even at this point, I wasn’t too worried, as I thought I would recover quickly, because the fluids had made me feel better.

I had pain all over my body

I’d now had COVID-19 for 7 to 10 days, and my physical strength was continuing to decline. I still had diarrhoea and no appetite. In the early hours of Monday morning, I began vomiting up fluids and knew I needed medical help. I felt extremely uncomfortable and had pain all over my body. I felt so weak, so I went back to A&E. This time I was admitted into hospital because I had low blood pressure. Blood tests showed I was low in potassium, had markers for inflammation and had low oxygen levels, as well as having pneumonia in both my lungs.

I was in hospital for 7 days

I was looked after in a side room on my own on a ward for the elderly. I was in hospital for 7 days, 5 of those days on oxygen given through nasal cannulas. This dried out my nose and gave me nosebleeds. When I got out of bed to go to the toilet, I needed to connect to an oxygen cylinder and lift it with me, which was a big effort.

I found it difficult mentally. It was then just before lockdown and each morning on the news, I’d hear about the number of deaths overnight. That was tough to listen to while I was in hospital and felt so unwell.

The second day I was in hospital (day 11), I really noticed just how bad my breathing was. I could not get out of bed without using the control to raise the top of the bed and help me sit up. My lungs felt like they were going to explode if I sneezed or coughed. I wasn’t breathless in the way you get out of breath running for a bus. I felt a real heaviness in my chest that felt like my lungs were going to collapse in on themselves. Even getting to the commode or having a wash was a massive effort.

I’d gone from being an active 49-year-old woman to someone who couldn’t even change her position in bed without a lot of difficulty. Being a physiotherapist, I had to become my own personal physio using techniques to help me shift around in bed or get in and out of the bed with least effort. Although I felt – and was – very unwell, I did bed exercises, as I knew how important they were to do to stop my muscles from wasting away. I did things like moving my legs, circling my ankles, and punching my arms up in the air and out in front of me. Even moving to sit on the edge of the bed became an exercise.

I was told I could go home 48 hours after I was breathing room air and the level of oxygen in my blood was above 90%. I managed this for 24 hours, but then felt quite low and depressed about being so isolated. I just wanted my own home and to be with my daughter. No visitors were allowed. Knowing lockdown was now being enforced, I just wanted to be home. The doctor agreed I could go home, as I had good awareness of what to do in terms of my breathing, due to my job as a respiratory physiotherapist.

Getting washed and dressed took me a couple of hours

The first week at home was the hardest, as I was so weak and had lost all my fitness and muscle tone.  My legs were like jelly. Getting washed and dressed in the morning would take me a couple of hours. I also had lots of pain in my legs that I believe was caused by being so weak.

I became anxious about being on my own, in case I suddenly deteriorated or died. Fortunately, this only lasted a few days. Once I could get downstairs more easily and do more for myself, this anxiety went.

I had difficulty finding words

For the first couple of weeks recovering from COVID-19, I had difficulty finding words. I would be talking, but couldn’t remember a name or a word to describe something. Even if I paused and waited, I just couldn’t remember the word I wanted to use. Numbers weren’t an issue – it just words.

Every few days I set myself a goal, like being able to cook breakfast or being able to do my washing. At first, I had to sit down to do these jobs, because I could only stand for 10 minutes. I took each day as it came and after 2 weeks, I was able to do most things again. I was just slower doing them.

When the hay fever season started, I had one relapse with breathlessness, but afterwards I was able to return to work.  In all, I was off work for 7 weeks, then had a phased return over 4 weeks.

I found COVID-19 relentless

My experience of COVID-19 is that it’s painful, relentless and makes you feel so unwell. But people do recover.

Fatigue is a big factor. As I recovered, I was not only dealing with breathlessness and anxiety, but also not being able to do everyday things for myself.

I was fortunate that I was not ill with COVID-19 itself for long and that I recovered quite speedily. But I can just imagine how much tougher it could be for people with long-term conditions, or who were treated in intensive care. And as you do recover, life is different. You’re recovering in lockdown. It’s all strange and unsettling. Work life is different too, due to the pandemic, but it feels so good being back in my job.

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