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.