28-year-old Labour activist Callum O’Dwyer began displaying symptoms of Covid-19 in the first week of lockdown. Here he shares his experience of recovery and its aftermath, and urges us all to take this thing seriously and try to stay safe.

A little bit of background about me: I live alone in Aberdeen and I seemingly caught and began displaying symptoms of Covid-19 on the 23rd of March. I have not been tested, but when I was displaying symptoms testing was not available to the public. I have been to hospital for scans, but never for respiratory support.

Two months ago, at the start of April, I began feeling, in fits and starts, better. I was into my second week of showing symptoms and was nearly at the end of actually having the virus.

But I am one of those lucky souls who did not get better immediately afterwards. I am now into my tenth week of recovery. I have spoken to 111 half a dozen times, spoken to doctors, managed to have scans taken. And I seem to have an (understandably) unspecified, unknown post-Covid, post-viral syndrome which is very, very slow at shifting.

I have been wracked with fatigue, joint pain and muscle weakness. At times I have struggled to pick up my one litre water bottle with one hand, arm fully stretched. At one point I was rationing whether I do a few dishes, a small load of washing or having a shave as my activity for the day (shaving always lost out). I was living on ready meals; cooking was beyond me. I have never felt so weak or limited in what I could do, spending most of the day resting but unable to sleep.

The pervasive tightness in my chest and persistent shortness of breath has stayed throughout the ten weeks in varying degrees. It regularly interrupts my sleep in a mild form; just not quite catching my breath, a constant wrongfooting, like expecting an extra stair in the dark but hitting a jarring gap. It is like being constantly reminded of the irregularity of your breathing and it is, if nothing else, insidiously annoying.

At about five weeks in from first symptoms I decided (and was convinced) to move in with my parents, because I could not look after myself easily without impeding my recovery. I was so exhausted all the time. I am very lucky that I had this option available to me. If I had nowhere else to go, or no time off work, or if I had kids to look after this would have been acutely, excruciatingly more difficult.

There was a risk of exposing my family to the virus, but I waited as long as I could (and to see if my recovery would pick up – it did not) and we took every precaution possible. Thankfully there has been no sign of anyone getting sick here.

I have now been at my folks’ for about five weeks and the good news is I have made big improvements – from straining to climb the stairs to now being able to scale them at about 80% of my normal capacity. I have done some spots of cooking and baking, I have driven my car extremely short distances. I still get tired but I bounce back faster, my muscular strength has returned to not quite usual but a lot better. I am still far from back to normal and it will take time, but there has been an improvement.

But still now with any exertion whatsoever I struggle to catch my breath for 10, 20, 30, occasionally 40+ mins. This comes with the tightness in my chest, but with no wheeze and my asthma meds not giving any help. By any exertion I mean: sprinting ten seconds because I thought I heard a family member fall, carrying an aluminium chair 15 yards across the garden, walking for ten minutes at a moderate pace, walking slowly through a hospital corridor for five minutes (with a sats machine reporting my oxygen levels were just fine). And there was me running 5ks last year!

I am not one to shy away from talking about my mental health and this has been one of the most difficult times I have gone through. The corrosive compound of necessary forced isolation, the unknown nature of the disease, the physical weakness, the fear of losing your breath. Gasping your hopes on false summit after false summit. I only noticed when I left my flat how deeply depressed I was, how it had felt like I was starting to shut down.

It has taken time but I am mentally out of the woods now. Everyone who has reached out since March – my family, my partner, my pals, my work and colleagues – has helped me through this. Thank you to everyone.

If I had not been as fortunate as I have – in being able to take time off work and keep my job, in having somewhere where I can be cared for, in that I didn’t have kids dependent on me – it would have been a very heavy load to bear.

I have kept an eye on the worst case scenario, and while those who are in employment have received a lot of support, if you had been made unemployed at any point this crisis and unable to work due to illness and recovery, the system as built is frankly inadequate. Over ten years the social security which protects against one bad sickness and losing everything has been left threadbare. In places like Aberdeen where work is increasingly precarious due to uncontrollable geopolitical events, but across much of the modern world where this trend of precarious industries abounds, and industries ravaged by the pandemic already – the social security in this country has to be an actual safety net. Not just a branch to hit you on the way down.

It’s difficult to write about this. I don’t want to be unwell still, but it’s apparently one in twenty of those who survive Covid who have these long-tail symptoms. I just have to wait this one out and hope recovery will do its work. Progress is excruciatingly slow. But this is to say – please be careful. Please stay safe as far as possible. And hold the bloody governments in every seat of power to account to stay safe, in every sense.

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6 thoughts on “My Covid reality

  1. Callum one of the best blogs for years .All the best to you and your family how easy did you find it to access Scot Gov and local government support services what do you think of the Scot Gov and UK daily briefings etc .
    What do you think of Dominics road trip to Durham .
    Hope your recovery continues stay safe Callum.

  2. Callum, your tale is instructive, as someone in their 20”s are in the physical prime of their lives, yet you are still exhibiting symptoms weeks later.
    I had a viral infection about 20years ago, persistent cough, constant sweating, aching bones, couldn’t eat (lost a stone in the 10 days it took to see a doctor)—I felt terrible, but when it was gone I recovered quickly. I never found out what the virus was.
    I worked in the mining industry for 25 years, am now over 70, so the last thing I want is to catch this coronavirus.
    I wonder how seriously it affects regions where heavy industry/mining was prevalent, and lung damage a consequence of their work, as Covid-19 affects pulmonary function?
    I hope you recover soon, and this virus goes the way of SARS.

  3. Hello Callum – I wonder if you might have been suffering not from Covid-19 but from Myalgic encephalomyelitis or Post-Viral Fatigue Syndrome. Your symptoms sound very familiar. ME/CFS can have a long and difficult route to recovery. Just when you think its gone, things have returned to normal BANG you are back in the pit. I don’t know if anyone has mentioned this possibility but it might be worth looking into as the quicker you deal with it the better. As you can see from this link your symptoms are very, very similar and you can see that the types of treatment are wide-ranging.
    https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/chronic-fatigue-syndrome-cfs/
    As well as the physical fatigue, you also mention feeling deeply depressed. I believe this too, along with stress-like symptoms requires some psychological retraining. I say this as I know it from my own experience 35 years ago. It took 3 years to recover fully. Check it out and keep safe. Best wishes.

  4. Callum for health reasons my GP put me in self isolation then I got DR Calderwoods 8 page letter putting me in shielding lockdown for 12 weeks that takes me until the end of June.
    Then I got a letter from John Swinney no interaction with the public if shielding like me .Garden only and front door for air .
    That’s why going out to do the NHS clap was so good for me I got to wave to the neighbours .
    There is help available North Ayrshire Council are delivering 4thousand 500 food boxes a week through a series of local hubs manned by volunteers and the Scottish Government are also delivering Scot Gov boxes to people on shielding like me .All Scottish Councils are doing this there is also a full range of help for things like getting medication delivered .If you have a shielding letter check for contact details .
    If not go on line for details or phone your local council .Don’t be alone there is help available its free .
    Everyone stay safe and stay home

  5. For people in shielding in Scotland it has been extended until July 31 the Scottish Government will send a letter to all shielding patients explaining things.

  6. Hi Callum have you had an antibody test to check whether you have developed antibodies to the virus in your blood from a past infection or exposure?

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