Lying in bed I felt so ill that I had only one choice: to lie awake all night worrying or to accept that if I went to sleep and the morning didn’t come for me at least I wouldn’t be the one having to deal with the aftermath.
Feeling utterly incapable of doing anything else – even incapable of panic or worry – I was resigned to it. Closing my eyes not knowing if that was the last thing I would ever do, but weirdly not having the energy to mind, I slept.
Thankfully I did wake up the next morning but found myself incapable of getting out of bed. I also didn’t have the energy or time to wonder why. I just kept falling asleep, losing hours at a time to nothingness.
Within twelve hours I was collapsed on the floor with paramedics on their way. Swiftly diagnosed with a serious heart condition, I was driven straight to A&E with sirens blaring and lights flashing.
A virus had broken me.
This is the story of how I managed my recovery to full health within a timeframe counted in weeks, rather than months.
A Personal Account
Almost exactly two years before Covid hit the headlines, I learned what it is to know that a viral infection can cause serious illness. Not only did I survive, I went from collapsed on my back with a malfunctioning heart and being taken by ambulance to the hospital, to effectively fully recovered inside two months.
Until now my recovery journey has been private. It felt very personal and was often scary and lonely as I coped with debilitating fatigue and brain fog. Once recovered I was very glad to put it all behind me as far as I could. Then Covid came along.
My experiences in early 2018 actually helped me to face the pandemic with a confidence and sense of calm that I might not otherwise have felt. Realising that so many people were suffering like I had, sharing my recovery story and approach to Covid suddenly felt important.
Why my story in particular? Millions of people have been through the worst of Covid, and hundreds of thousands are still working through their recovery and perhaps suffering Long Covid (known as ‘Long Haulers’ in North America).
There is nothing special about my life story. Except that, had it not been for my very particular combination of life experiences from childhood, through school and into later life, I would not have had the knowledge or skills to deal with what I went through in the way that I did. Everything I used to formulate my plan and approach to recovery after that hospitalisation was already in my head.
My life has been broadly conventional and widely uneventful. Both my parents are from solidly middle-class backgrounds, but during my childhood they were on restricted incomes. Money was tight, although love and intellectual debate at home were plentiful. Attending a faith-based state comprehensive school, I studied reasonably hard and achieved grades good enough to get into university. This was at a time when student-paid tuition fees were unheard of, and grants for living expenses existed but were means-tested. My siblings and I each qualified for part of a grant.
Having been fascinated by the workings of the human body for as long as I can remember, reportedly, at the age of about five or six, I badgered mum into buying me a copy of A Ladybird Book: Your Body and had looked through it all by breakfast the following day. I won’t share the precise details of the fairly graphic questions I asked over that breakfast. Suffice to say, I demonstrated an early interest in all areas of human anatomy.
My father worked as a farm manager, and during his career he managed a succession of large farming estates owned by others. It meant growing up with animals present in my everyday life; dogs, cats, chinchillas, budgies, finches, horses, cows and sheep all made it into our family menagerie (I also drove many tractors). Now I wonder if it allowed me to observe and understand how bodies work simplistically, without the complications of modern human life.
Studying biology at school I got good grades at GCSE and A-Level. I enjoyed it so much that I went on to study zoology at university because I loved animal biology but was not so fussed about plants. During my degree I studied many aspects of human biology alongside medical students, finding human physiology (how the body carries out all its internal and physical functions), anatomy (the structural organisation of the body – what it is made up of and how it all fits together), neurology (how the brain works), and endocrinology (hormones) particularly fascinating. I soaked up the knowledge.
The rest of my course consisted of studies of animal behaviour (how animals relate to each other and why), evolution (including how biological processes are believed to have evolved), ecology (how organisms adapt to their environment), and even a course on the history and philosophy of science.
As much as I loved all things scientific, I had no ambition or desire to continue as an academic scientist, nor to study medicine. I went into the corporate world and have subsequently worked for more than 20 years in a variety of companies of all sizes: from start-ups and small franchise operations to working at the most senior levels of FTSE100, household name companies. One could say that even in work I have continued to observe animal behaviours in a type of complex ‘ecosystem’; human behaviours, and individuals relating to each other in a work environment.
With my light smattering of scientific knowledge, what follows is a personal account of my experience. None of this has been formally tested, but it worked for me. I have, after all, been well enough to write a book. I have shared my theory with friends as they have caught Covid, and those who struggled with ongoing fatigue afterwards reported that following my approach helped their recovery.
Baz Luhrmann’s number one single Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen), which found global popularity in the late 1990s, states:
“If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.
The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience …”.
This is my own meandering experience. I hope you at least enjoy reading it.
A Nasty Virus
In early or mid-December 2017, I started to feel unwell with typical ‘nasty cold’ symptoms. Coughing, a sore throat, headaches and general aches and pains. It was one of those winters when everyone seemed aware that ‘a nasty bug’ was doing the rounds. Around the water-cooler it was accepted that it wasn’t ‘proper flu’ but reports of people being off work for up to three weeks with it were not unusual.
I had just started a new role working in aviation, an industry I had been passionate about since childhood but had not had the opportunity to join before. The advert led me to believe that this would be the position I had diligently worked towards for the previous fifteen years. It ought to have been my dream job.
It was meant to be perfect but had turned out to be far from it. I should have known better when I read the contract and realised that my new employer did not pay discretionary sick pay in the first three months, which is unusual in my line of work.
Ever the optimist and with a strong tendency to give people the benefit of the doubt, I joined the company anyway. Being in the best shape of my life so far, finally having found a fitness routine that suited me and which I enjoyed, I wasn’t expecting to need to take any days off sick.
It very quickly transpired that the job just wasn’t what was advertised. The company had recruited a strategist into a transactional role. It was a classic ‘square peg, round hole’ situation. There was also plenty of political tension in the office, creating quite a stressful environment. Resigning after a tumultuous first month, I gave notice to leave at the end of January so as not to lose income just before Christmas.
When I picked up that bug I didn’t want to take any time off work, mostly because of the lack of sick pay but also to avoid a bad impression. Plus I’m used to getting things done and soldiering on through good times and the not-so-good. I thought nothing of dosing myself up on over-the-counter cold medication to manage the coughing, sniffling and feeling generally unwell with aches and pains. I no doubt had a slight temperature too, but we didn’t even own a thermometer then.
The cold & flu remedy I used consisted of day and night-time preparations. It was very effective at masking my symptoms just enough that I could bear dragging myself into work regardless. I even felt very smug at having bought a triangular foam bed-wedge a few years before to put under my pillow when suffering from a cold, so that my chest would be raised when I was lying down. It might prevent phlegm pooling in my upper airways and reduce my coughing at night. It did seem to make a difference.
Sitting at my kitchen table when I first started writing this story during a Covid lockdown, with the radio on quietly in the background, I was aware of an advert urging us not to let cold symptoms get in the way or hold us back. I realise that’s what I did back then. I was seduced by how easy it was to subscribe to the cultural pressure to defy illness by swallowing pills to mask symptoms and keep going. I also have to remember that back in 2017 most of the population thought that all viruses were pretty unthreatening. That even flu was something you could probably work through if you had to, get over and shake off within a week or so. As long as you weren’t very old.
It was a miserable week, but I was impressed with the effectiveness of that cold medication. It was the first time that I had used that particular brand. The daytime pills combined painkillers and decongestants with caffeine to stimulate, while the night-time pills included a sedative to aid sleep.
My job involved being exceptionally well organised and thinking ahead to solve problems as efficiently and effectively as possible. I confidently applied those skills to the inconvenience of suffering a nasty bug. I took the pills strictly according to alarms I had set up on my phone, and went to bed in time to get my eight hours of sleep lying on my foam bed wedge. All of which meant I could just about make it through each day in the office.
No matter that I was coughing and sneezing almost continuously on the tube and at work, spreading my germs to others. All I was focused on was that I didn’t want to miss work or give up any pay, with no regard as to whether I was sharing a train carriage with others more vulnerable. People for whom the consequences of catching the bug I had could be far more debilitating than I had ever thought possible at the time.
I was tired, grumpy and pretty miserable to live with that week, but by day six or seven my typical ‘nasty cold’ symptoms of runny nose, coughing, sneezing, aching body, and headaches had passed. I didn’t need to take the cold meds anymore. I thought I was over the virus: I stopped taking the tablets and set about carrying on with my normal life and work routines.
Except that I didn’t feel quite normal. Feeling very sluggish, I became vaguely aware that my work productivity was unusually low. Automatically putting that down to the new job not being what it had promised to be, I thought I must just be suffering from work stress. Feeling sick during the journey to work, I was breathless, anxious and unable to concentrate on anything once I arrived. Constantly tired, my brain just didn’t engage most of the time.
Every evening I struggled to muster any energy or enthusiasm at all. The simplest of tasks – even eating a meal or getting up and going to the toilet – required extraordinary effort. I was constantly lethargic and always thinking that bedtime just couldn’t come soon enough.
A pre-Christmas day trip to visit family a two-hour drive away saw me able to do nothing but sit in a chair all day once we got there. It was a family party of grandparents, siblings, nieces and nephews. I would typically have been joining in with all the conversations and lending a hand, going on a family post-lunch walk and lingering late into the evening. Instead, on that day, I was so exhausted from the journey there that I sank into a chair on arrival and stayed there before being driven home soon after lunch.
That was most unlike me, as I usually do all the driving. I love to drive anything and can drive all day long with no problem at all. During my holidays from university I drove tractors for twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week, all summer long. That driving stamina had largely stayed with me up until then. I should have realised when I couldn’t drive that this was serious.
I cannot remember what we did for Christmas that year and have no memories of it at all. I do, however, remember one particular moment on a day between Christmas and New Year when I had been almost alone in a very empty office all day. I was shutting down my computer in time to leave promptly by five o’clock when I realised that I had done almost nothing.
The only thought I could muster was wondering how on earth I had sat at my desk all day, with the computer on and believing myself to be completely focused on work, yet be astounded at just how little I had achieved. I hadn’t even noticed how little I was doing.
I had no idea where that time had gone or what I had done with it either. I had not been able to strike a single thing off my to-do list for that day. I thought I had been working on a spreadsheet all day with no distractions. Yet there were barely any changes to save. The time seemed to have disappeared. My work rate was only a tiny fraction of normal, and I was hardly noticing.
Noticing that the thought itself seemed to arrive in slow motion, even that realisation felt surreal. My lack of progress was especially perplexing as it was between Christmas and New Year when there wasn’t really anyone else about to distract or interrupt me. I could normally get through mountains of work during those quiet days.
I put feeling ‘just not quite right’, and struggling to get anything done at all, down to the stress of being in that dysfunctional office setting. I genuinely thought I was over the bug, not having given it any more thought since taking the last cold remedy capsule weeks earlier. Having already handed in my notice to finish my contract at the end of January, all I had to do was keep turning up to work and ensure that the role was handed over effectively. I thought I would be fine once I was out of that torrid office environment, and if I was a bit tired I could take a short break then.
Soldiering on, I was trying my best to do just the things expected of me and which needed to be done: getting dressed, walking the dog, going to work, taking my turn cooking dinner, and so many other everyday things. I was distracted and spending every spare moment either sitting or lying down, at best staring blankly into the middle distance. Even watching mindless reality TV was an effort, barely registering what was on the screen.
Getting to and from work started to involve dozing on the tube morning and evening – something I had never done before but suddenly couldn’t help – even fantasising about my winter coat being a duvet. A fully paid-up member of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ school of thought, I was working hard just to function, believing everything would eventually get better. More fool me. I was (almost literally) sleepwalking to disaster.