How coronavirus nearly killed me: A first-hand account
- Credit: Grace Dudley
Just days out of hospital and still recovering at home with a cocktail of tablets, 29-year-old make-up artist Grace Dudley, from Rush Green, describes the unimaginable trauma of spending nine days critically ill from coronavirus at Queen’s Hospital, Romford.
From seeing a patient take her last breath before her very eyes to being convinced that she herself wouldn’t make it to see the next sunrise, she bravely shares what it’s like to go through this first-hand.
“If it can stop people from going outside, that’s all I care about”, she says. “Watching somebody die is real eye-opener.”
It’s still not over for Grace. Her father, who was admitted on the same day, is still in intensive care and on a ventilator. As of March 10, the family have been told that he will not wake up. They are told say their final goodbyes as nurses just make him as comfortable as possible.
Around March 26, my 65-year-old dad began to feel unwell. As the days went on he got sicker with a cough and a high temperature, and we quickly realised that he had all of the typical symptoms of the coronavirus.
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On around the sixth day of his illness, I also needed to lie down as my skin began to have this fizzing feeling and within 24 hours I had never felt so ill. I was freezing despite my four quilts and I couldn’t stay awake for long intervals.
Around this time, my dad said he needed help and, as he always downplays everything, we knew immediately it was serious. We were told an ambulance was coming, but then hours later we got a phone call to say that unless he was ready for the ICU, they weren’t taking anyone in. While he was still able to breathe, they wouldn’t send anybody, so we had another couple of days to wait. He was deteriorating quickly.
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Within a couple of days my breathing worsened too, and I am asthmatic. We were forced to call an ambulance again as we were extremely concerned, although my mum was doing her very best to look after him. When the ambulance arrived, they said they needed to take him immediately to the hospital,
As I was getting up to use the bathroom the medics saw me and said they’d like to check on me and then told me I too would need to go to the hospital. When we got in the ambulance they said that I would need to be blue-lighted as my oxygen levels were extremely low. They put me on oxygen and they levelled out pretty quickly, so in the end they just took me to the normal A&E with my dad.
I was lying next to my dad and remember him asking for some water. They put a cup in his hand but he was shaking so badly the entire contents were all over him within three seconds. He couldn’t even get a cup to his mouth. I knew he was very sick.
They’re very keen for people to be able to recover at home, so they told me I could go. I was so scared to leave my dad. I knew I shouldn’t have been going home but they just needed the space and there were older citizens there who needed the beds more than I did. So I came home and my dad stayed.
I was home for only 24 hours before the ambulance had to come back out - I couldn’t breathe and my entire body, even my elbows and knees, were dripping with sweat.
This time I was blue-lighted to the hospital and put straight into resus. This was extremely scary. Before I knew it, I had so many needles in me - everything was done in a rush to help me. My whole arm was bright red with blood and the doctors were apologising, but it wasn’t their fault, they were trying to get medication in me as quickly as possible.
Once they managed to give me oxygen, a nebuliser and calm my breathing somewhat, they moved me to the majors [care area] where I spent the next 24 hours. It was manic in there; nobody was allowed in without the correct PPE and they also weren’t allowed out with the PPE on, because if they left the room they would have to change all of their PPE again and, from what I overheard, they just didn’t have enough of it to keep changing.
I was given a paper mask but it was extremely difficult for me to wear because of my breathing difficulties as it was extremely restricting. I couldn’t go to the bathroom, unless wheeled there as I couldn’t stand up - if I did I would begin to choke and my breathing would just cease to function, my lungs would just shrivel, this is what it felt like from the inside. They told me they needed to keep me in as if they sent me home and I had a coughing fit or my breathing went any worse I could die. They needed to keep the beds rotating so they sent me to a place called ERU, an elderly receiving unit converted to treat coronavirus patients.
This is where things got really serious. The first night I spent in that ward on my own, I was having the worst fevers but there’s nothing they can do other than give you paracetamol. It got so bad I was hallucinating.
It seemed for the night shifts there wasn’t enough staff. I had a button to press if I needed medical attention but sometimes it would take an hour for somebody to come. The ward had no windows, no air, and, as somebody with severe anxiety, it was extremely scary. In the night, I texted my mum saying: “I don’t know if I’ll make it home. I love you.”
I felt like I was going to die. I’d never had that feeling before. The first night, at around 3am, three more people came into my ward. A lady called Dawn, who had similar symptoms to mine, but not being asthmatic her breathing wasn’t too bad; a lady called Christiana, who was told that, with a temperature of 40 degrees celsius, she had pneumonia; and a lady in her 50s whom I never got to speak to as she was unconscious from the moment she arrived, clearly having breathing difficulties herself. I could tell she was seriously unwell.
We managed to make it through the next 24 hours together, helping each other out. I kept wetting myself when I was coughing and Dawn helped me with some sanitary products, while I helped her with toothpaste. We gave Christiana fruit and juice. We just tried to help each other. One time I said to my doctor: “What am I supposed to do when I’m having a coughing fit or my breathing goes bad? I’m trying to call somebody but nobody is there.” He said, “We are trying to get around to everybody. We have people dying and we’re trying to help everybody”. This is why it’s so important to stay home. There are not enough nurses and doctors to save everybody! But they were trying their best. Another 20 hours passed. As I was sat with a temperature on my bed waiting for medication, a lady called Caroline replaced Christiana, who had been moved to a different ward.
I was watching the lady in her 50s or 60s, opposite me who was still in a sleeping state and I noticed a change to her breathing - it had gotten a lot slower and the breaths much further apart.
She stopped breathing for 10 seconds at a time. I shouted to Dawn that she needed help. We pressed our buttons and shouted as loudly as we could but, being hooked up to IVs, we couldn’t leave our beds, A nurse briefly popped her head in and ran off to find a doctor.
I watched as that lady took her last breath right next to me. I knew she was gone. I was the only person in the room who had a view of her. I said: “She’s gone.” The other patients were shocked and disbelieving. I said, “She’s gone now, her breathing has stopped.”
We continued to call for the nurses and doctors and, when they came, they closed the curtain around her and confirmed that she had passed away. I threw up everywhere as my anxiety went out of control. I wondered what could have been done to prevent this from happening, but I knew she was extremely ill from the second I saw her. May she rest in peace.
Ten minutes later a doctor came in and said that Caroline and Dawn were being moved to another ward. No news for me. I cried. I begged for them to move me. I couldn’t stay there any more. I was left in the room with the lady behind the curtain for around 20 minutes until a male nurse came by and saw me crying. I told him I was going to die and he comforted me and said, “Let’s pack your things. I’m going to take you to a nicer place.”
I could have jumped for joy, except my body wouldn’t allow it. While he took me to a new ward, Clementine A, he said: “If I were sick I’d be doing everything possible to stay at home. There are so many sick people here, it is so difficult not to get sick, or for the sick people not to worsen. We are doing our best to make sure we can keep everybody safe, but it’s a difficult task.”
The second I entered the ward I immediately felt better. They said: “We are going to look after you here”, and the male nurse who portered me said: “My friends here will take good care of you”.
I trusted in that straight away, a weight was lifted off of my shoulders. I now had a new room which had a TV - I was so shocked - windows and fresh air. It felt like heaven to me.
However, my first night was difficult. I was vomiting for most of it and had to spend it on a very high level of oxygen, but I felt better in the morning. When the doctor came to see me he told me that he would be contacting ICU for me to be moved there as my breathing was of great concern and I needed to be very closely observed. Knowing that my dad was there, it didn’t even frighten me.
I just thought I’d be able to see his face, so even though it meant I was really sick, I wasn’t frightened. I was excited to maybe be able to see my dad, who had no improvement from when he went in. He was on a ventilator and had pneumonia.
Luckily for my health, as the days went on my breathing got better, and I didn’t need to go to ICU. I had the pleasure of meeting Ella Grafton, the lovely elderly lady next to me in the ward who had taken a fall down the stairs and was recovering. I took to her immediately. She had a phone which had no battery so I sent my boyfriend to buy her a charger and some fruit, food, toiletries and she kept me sane. Every time I coughed she called the nurses - we looked after each other.
On the fourth day of Clementine A, a lovely nurse came in and told me that she was going to see how I would get on without oxygen. I spent the whole day without it and when she came back she put on the radio on and all the nurses celebrated and danced for me as they had thought that this wasn’t going to be a possibility for me for a very long time.
On day six of Clementine, I was woken by the nurse at 8am and told that I could go home to my mum, my son, my partner and my brother. My initial thought was: “Oh my god, I lived. I survived this and I thought it was going to kill me”.
Eight hours later I was sent home with the rest of my medication. My boyfriend picked me up from the hospital. It was a tough journey home, every single step even now takes my breath away, so I’m still resting.
I’m 29 years old and this has changed my life forever. My dad is still in intensive care on a ventilator and I am unable to properly take care of my son until I am better. We are all extremely scared about my dad and his recovery; we need him very much.
The hardest part of being in the hospital was probably not being able to see my family, thinking you may never see them again.
The thing that helped me most was going to Clementine A ward. The treatment I got there was second to none. There was always somebody to help me when needed and they checked on me often.
To people who are not taking coronavirus seriously I want to tell them that it’s not worth it. Nothing you think you need or want is worth having if you end up where I was and where my dad still is. Nothing matters more than family and health.
If you end up with the coronavirus and if you die, you may be alone. I’ve witnessed it and it is heartbreaking. The lady I saw was somebody’s mum, daughter, sister, aunt. It’s something that will forever live in my mind.
Don’t risk anything. I have come home now and I am living with an awful paranoia about germs and am absolutely terrified I will get it again. I can’t tell you how awful it is, how soul destroying, and just how much it affects you, not just while you’re sick, but afterwards too. It’s just not worth catching or spreading it.