The harrowing ordeal of one of the first Irish patients to catch Covid-19, leaving her in a coma in intensive care, has been revealed in a prestigious medical journal.
Dubliner Anne Cahill said the devastating illness has turned her into the Covid police and she will be the last to remove her mask.
The mother of four who is in her early fifties was hit with symptoms like a hurricane.
In early March last year, Anne struggled to understand the deluge of information being thrown at her and how the virus might affect her and her family’s life, or the risk she might be infected
On March 15 while out walking with her husband Tony, she began to feel ill. “It was a range of bad symptoms. Feeling hot and cold, headaches, throwing up – I was on the sofa barely able to move. Across the next few days, it got worse.”
Although her GP told her to tough it out, eventually Anne and Tony decided they would have to call an ambulance.
“The paramedics told me that my temperature was not above 38°C so I couldn’t be taken in for Covid.
“But I just told them ‘you have to take me in, I’m dying here’.”
As new Covid-19 protocols had been brought in at nearby St James’s Hospital, Tony was unable to go with Anne to the A&E, making her even more anxious.
“It was like a ghost town in there – normally you cannot move in the A&E waiting room as it is so crowded.
"It was the first time I understood how serious this pandemic was becoming. People were even scared to go to hospital for emergencies,” she told the Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal.
She was taken to a cubicle for treatment and had blood and swabs taken. Three hours later, she was told she had tested positive for coronavirus – in addition, she had a serious kidney infection that required immediate antibiotic treatment.
Anne was moved to a ward where there were three other Covid patients: two older women who seemed to be over the worst of their infection, and another man with cancer who was moved to intensive care.
While her kidney infection subsided Anne’s breathing began to deteriorate, with a chesty, persistent cough developing.
On March 24, the duty staff nurse told her she was “getting worse, not better”, summoning doctors from intensive care and a team arrived to assess her. She was sedated to be intubated and consciousness slipped away into an induced coma for the next nine days while a ventilator did her breathing for her.
Anne suffered various hallucinations common for people in these circumstances. “Some of it felt so real,” she says. Many of these vivid dreams involved her family members and when she came out of the coma, she could not tell what had actually happened and what she had imagined.
“I felt very sick when I woke up; in terrible pain from the intubation and this head-banging nausea. I also felt like I was a bit yellow and was asking the nurses if I’d had jaundice,” Anne explains.
The medical team continued to offer Anne morphine and anti-nausea drugs to help her recover and manage her pain. She was eventually moved to the high dependency ward, where there were two other patients.
Her head started to clear, she began to ask for her personal items back and what had been happening. She was then moved to a private room.
“You would think the privacy would be nice, but when you’ve spent your life with your husband and four children, you’re used to having lots of people around. This was the opposite,” she says. "Even though I knew I was getting better, the silence in that room was horrible. And because of the fear of the disease the staff that came in, such as nurses and cleaners, did not want to stay. They were in and out so fast. I understand it – they were scared.”
Anne is also embarrassed recalling her many conversations with her post-intensive care doctor, whom she constantly demanded to discharge her from the hospital: “How he put up with me, I do not know. I know they kept me in for my own good, but all I ever did was demand he let me out of the hospital!”
Her final days in hospital were over the Easter long weekend and she struggled to walk. She also knew she had to have a negative test before being permitted to leave. When it came back clear she was so anxious to go she left without saying goodbye to any of the staff.
“I wish I hadn’t done that now but I was just so afraid that having been there so long, they might find another reason for me to have to stay. I realise that’s silly, but that’s how I felt at that moment.”
She has found recovery a long process and initially continual exhaustion meant she spent most days on the sofa or sitting in the garden: “My daughter had to help me blow dry my hair. I felt I was closer to 90 years old than 50 in those early days.”
Anne went back to her retail job after six months but also participated in a medical study for the first time.
A doctor who treated her invited her to take part in an analysis of long-term Covid symptoms. Presented at a European congress on coronavirus in September last year, it made global headlines – persistent fatigue happens in more than half of patients recovered from Covid-19, regardless of the seriousness of their infection.
Day to day, she manages her energy and doesn’t try to do too much. “It’s shopping or cleaning, not both!” she laughs. She is looking forward to receiving her vaccine and hoping life can return to normal for everyone in the not too distant future: “Until then, I am like the Covid police. I think I will be the very last person to take off my mask.”