Inside the Hospital and the Life of the Coronavirus Ward – guest post no.2 by Ed Stonecliffe

Happy to be alive and breathing oxygen

This account in 98% true. I have made certain factual changes to protect the anonymity of the people involved. Some of them don’t want a mention and others I was unable to ask.

The admissions doctor decided that I should go on Coronavirus ward so I was moved on a trolley to a holding room where a nurse hooked me up to a drip, took a blood sample and inserted tube in my vein through which I would receive intravenous antibiotic injections over the next three days.

“Antibiotics?” you say, “but they don’t work on viruses.” Indeed they don’t but they will knock out any secondary bacterial infection, including the possibility of a bacterial infection causing my pneumonia, and let my body concentrate on tackling the virus.

I was then moved up to the ward and my bed installed in a bay closest to the window but furthest from the bathroom. There was a strange bright blue feature on wheels it looked like some sort of robot. It was a machine that measured blood pressure, pulse rate and most importantly, the oxygen content of the blood.

This contraption seemed to come around once every four hours with a nurse assisting it. It gave me something to look forward to. Very often, especially at night I’d see the silhouette of the monitor and think that it was a person. A silent Florence Nightingale watching over us and caring for us in the dark times.

I’d also been given an oxygen mask. This was made of clear plastic and fastened over my head with two elastic bands. It had a tube extending from it which made me look a bit like an elephant but made breathing a lot easier. It made a lot of noise and the additional oxygen flow came out of holes at the side of the mask which dried my eyes. At least I wasn’t on a ventilator.

There were four other people in my room. One was very loud, one was very angry, one was quietly observing what was going on around him and the fourth just seemed to lie in his bed and moan occasionally. I smiled at them all when I could and said the occasional word. Sometimes they responded, but not all the time. The quiet observing man seemed to acknowledge me the most.

A doctor visited me and drew the curtains around my bed, this must have been what happened as I didn’t leave my bed for three days. In my memory, I was sitting at large refectory table in a huge dining hall. He asked me when my symptoms started and I told him. “You’re at a critical point,” he said words falling heavily on my ears, “you’ll either start getting better or start getting worse, but there’s a lot we can do with ventilators”. Strangely I don’t remember being scared or worried. Maybe I was too ill. I was just accepting, or the illness has confused my memories.

I told the people who needed to know about my predicament: my parents, my girlfriend and my next-door neighbour. They seemed understanding but very worried. I don’t live with my girlfriend and hadn’t seen her for a couple of weeks before I’d been hospitalised. It can’t have been easy for her as she has two children and her parents and sister to think about. I really didn’t want to be an additional burden to her worries.

I got a text message on my phone. My next-door neighbour is a retired warrant officer from the Tank Regiment, a tough no-nonsense guy with a heart of gold. The message read “Hi mate, I’m giving you the rank of trooper in my regiment so the next is LCpl (Lance corporal). You take care, try to sleep, drink water and be good to the young nurses. Take care and sleep now mate.”

I replied, “A high honour, I’ll text you in the morning for that stripe”.

I don’t remember sleeping. The angry patient was angry and the loud patient was loud and I tried to keep breathing and drinking water. I also produced a lot of urine and regularly filled up the pressed cardboard bottles I’d been issued with. I really didn’t want to dehydrate as I’d read that kidney failure could be an additional complication.  

When I awoke, I sent my neighbour a text “Just letting you know to get the stripe tin open” I’d survived my first night and made Lance Corporal. Throughout my stay in hospital my neighbour and I played this game. Each morning I got a new promotion and I rose through the ranks. But no promotion was a sweet as the morning I got to sew my first stripe on my hospital pyjamas.

The loud patient was taken away that day to another ward. He was elderly and I overheard the conversation he had with the doctor. There was nothing more they could do for him. They must have taken him to another room for palliative care.

I washed myself in a pressed cardboard bowl and was ready for breakfast. For the last week or two I could hardly eat but my appetite had returned with a vengeance and I began a six-day love affair with hospital food. I ate everything. The food was delicious, especially the custard.

A different doctor came to see me. He told me I’d been responding well to the oxygen therapy and that they hoped to have me home soon. Then from behind his mask, “I know you, you used to drink at the pub I worked at when I was an undergraduate.” I didn’t recognise him, probably because of the mask, and maybe I was usually drunk when I went to that pub and certainly was when I left. We talked about the pub and the characters that used to go there for a few minutes. It was nice to recall happier times.

That night was a tough one. The angry man was very angry and tried to walk out of the ward. He was fastened to a drip and had a catheter in also I don’t think he was strong enough to get out of bed and he started to fall. I pressed my alarm and a nurse came in. She turned off my alarm, called for help and went straight over to the angry man. “I want to go home” the angry man kept shouting. “Well, start working with us and we’ll get you home,” said a nurse.

The morning came along and I got another stripe for my pyjamas. The angry man was subdued and a Doctor came to see him. It sounded like he was doing well but non-cooperative. When the doctor went away the quiet patient, who up to now had said very little, started to talk and the angry man opened up as to why he was so desperate to get home. He had no mobile phone and had been unable to contact his wife. He was elderly with existing health problems but he didn’t feel too bad despite having the virus. He just wanted to talk to her.

Each bed had a phone and television unit next to it. The quiet man, who I’ll call Brian, explained how to use the phone and the now not so angry man, who I’ll call Dave, rang his wife. A period of peace entered the room. Dave lost all his anger and really started to cooperate with his treatment and Brian started talking a lot. I think I was talking a lot too. There were now just four of us in the room: Dave, Brian, myself and a man I’ll call Eric. Eric was barely conscious and surviving on teaspoons of ice cream. Dave cooperated with the nurses. He used a zimmer frame at home and the nurses got him one to use in the ward.

That night I encountered a new phenomenon… Night terrors!

It was three in the morning and I awoke suddenly. The hospital was on fire, all the staff had left I was terrified. I was dehydrated but my bladder was full. I tried to call for help but couldn’t make a noise. My bladder was really full and I couldn’t reach for a bottle. I couldn’t move. Then, suddenly my bladder let go and there I was, lying in a burning hospital, with no staff, drenched in my own warm urine.

Somehow, I found myself able to move a little. I pressed my alarm button. Just in case someone in this hospital inferno was still around. A very calm nurse appeared and turned of my alarm. “What’s the problem Edward?”

“Isn’t the hospital on fire?”

“Not as far as I’m aware.”

“Oh… That’s good…erm… I… er…I’m afraid I’ve wet the bed.”

She didn’t seem at all shocked. She got me some clean pyjamas and helped me clean up. Then she stripped and re-made the bed like it was all in a day’s work. Which, let’s face it, it probably was.

The night terrors continued until a couple of days after I left hospital with decreasing intensity. The second one was pretty terrifying too but thankfully none were as fearful as that first one and thankfully with no more bed wetting. I think it’s the shock of waking up in an unfamiliar body at three in the morning. Not a good time for anyone.

The next day was so much better. Dave was quieter and concentrating on using his new zimmer frame. Brian was talkative and told me many things about himself. The doctor reduced my oxygen supply and I ate hospital food.

It was around this time I called a very good friend of mine to let him know how I was doing. He’d been in contact with my girlfriend and he’d sent me a text wishing me well. I wanted to talk to him. My friend is a physiotherapist with his own practice. He took a great interest in how I was doing. I hadn’t rung him as a physio but as a friend.  He’d treated my tennis elbow in the past and given me some good advice when I cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats last summer. I wasn’t looking for medical advice so I was surprised by what he said next.

“How much oxygen are you on and how much oxygen is in your blood?” He seemed ever so knowledgeable about my predicament. I told him I’d find out next time I was monitored.

After the next round of monitoring I called my physio-friend. “I’m on two litres of oxygen, the second lowest dose I believe, and my oxygen level is 95%”

“Right we need to get you walking, can you get a zimmer frame?”

“I’ll see what I can do”

“And get used to taking your oxygen off for a while and breathe normally. Then put it back on but get your lungs doing some work.”

Understand this: the hospitals are very busy and the staff are very stretched. Normally I’m sure that there is all sorts of help on hand to get people home but these are not normal times. I needed to get myself walking and on the advice of my friend I took a few short wobbly steps.

“What are you doing?” the nurse called Mary asked when she saw me.

“I’m going to walk to the end of my bed, then I’m going to turn around and walk back.” This wasn’t a discussion, it was a statement. I could see she wasn’t happy but I did it anyway. She clapped, probably more in relief than approval. I sat in a chair.

I have a very stubborn streak which usually I find to be a great asset but sometimes a curse. I needed to keep this in check, and I knew it.

Having seen the angry Dave, I could see how destructive a stubborn streak could be. People talk about fighting illness but I’m afraid that is codswallop. You don’t fight illness, your body does that for you. In my case with a good dollop of help from the medical profession. It was their help that saved my life.

I was actually a passenger in all this. All I had to do was take my medication, eat my meals and drink lots of water. I didn’t fight anything in hospital. I laid no clenched fist on anything or anyone. I just did as I was told and tried to cause no problems for anyone. The fighters were a pain. They kept trying to get out of bed before they were ready. They complained they weren’t being treated properly. Dave was behaving himself now and was a very pleasant man. And he was going to be discharged. But we’d got a new patient in our room now, Clive; a younger man with pre-existing medical problems.

Dave went and we wished him well. Clive required more specialist care and was moved off the ward and transferred to another hospital.

Another bonus for me, when Dave left his zimmer frame had been left in our room. Oh what a shame, I’d got my zimmer frame now!

The doctors reduced my oxygen still further and I just had some tubes now instead of the oxygen mask. I spoke to my friend.

“You need to ween yourself of the oxygen. Take it off when you walk. Try not to panic and put it back on straight away when you’ve finished. Let your lungs recover naturally before you put the oxygen back on.”

He also gave me some breathing exercises for my lungs. Four deep breathes every hour using the diaphragm. I was more than happy to do this and feel my lungs waking up each time I did it.

The other piece of advice he gave was to trust my legs. He told me that if my legs felt strong then they would support me and to try not to be fooled by a wobbly head. My legs did feel strong and they did support me.

I started to use the frame to get me to the bathroom at the opposite end of the room. Putting the tubes back on, but not immediately, when I’d finished and returned to my bed or armchair. I was spending longer sitting in the chair as it was comfortable and supportive and felt very secure.

I had to check my bullheadedness. It would’ve been easy to do too much and tire myself out, so I started speaking to the nurses and they seemed happy with what I was doing although I never let on about my secret physiotherapist. I also got plenty of rest. Before I tried anything new I told them what I was going to do. I didn’t want to scare them like I scared Mary when I walked to the end of my bed and back.

Sometimes I’d forget to put my oxygen back on. It didn’t seem to make much difference anyway. Brian was making good progress too, walking further, getting to the bathroom on his own. He told me that as a young man he’d had tuberculosis and was using the same techniques to recover from coronavirus as he did from TB. I shared with him some of the advice I’d been given and we became quite a team.

Eric lay in his bed eating teaspoons of ice cream.

We got a new patient also called Dave. Dave 2 had a terminal illness already and had months to live. Now he had coronavirus as well. He also could use a zimmer frame to get himself to the toilet so my purloined zimmer was given to him. Just as well as it forced me to walk without it. The doctor reduced my oxygen to nothing and the nurses continued to monitor my oxygen levels.

I could walk but my steps were slow and deliberate. I’d place my foot in front of me and then let my body follow it. Step and arrive, step and arrive. I’d done some Argentine tango a few years ago. My steps were the same as the basic tango walk. So, like an Argentine Gaucho, I tangoed around the room.

“What are you doing? It was Eric. The first words he’d said in six days. It must have been a terrible shock for him to see me dancing the tango without a partner.

“I’m going home Eric, I need to practise walking”

“Oh” and that was the only time I spoke to Eric.

Brian and I listened to Dave 2. We spoke to him too of course but we listened. He knew he was dying but that didn’t seem to mean he wasn’t alive. He was very good company. Funny, interesting and God was he brave.

I was told I could go home. I was sure that I wasn’t ready but I organised a lift. The doctor advised that I was very unlikely to be contagious at this stage in my illness but just to be on the safe side I should wear a mask. I asked for one for my driver as well.  I cleaned myself up and for fear of contaminating the car I was going home in. I ditched all my clothes in the hospital’s bin, with their permission of course. I got a pair of fresh clean pyjamas and a pair of slipper socks.

My lift was in the car park. I went and washed myself all over and put on clean clothes. Molly, the staff nurse, came and I said I was ready to go. I said my goodbyes to Brian, Dave 2 and Eric and walked out of the room. Dave 2 was singing, “Oh for he’s a jolly good fellow, For he’s a jolly good fellow, For he’s a jolly good fellow, And so say all of us” I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.

I walked past the nurses’ station and all the staff applauded me. It must have been a lift for them to see me leave but they’d done all the hard work. I’d just sat about waiting to get better and done as I was told. I applauded them back and shouted my thanks. It was a long corridor to the exit and I couldn’t walk it. Molly got me a wheelchair and pushed me out of the hospital. My lift was there with the car door open. He was already wearing a filter mask. I put on my mask and thanked Molly again. I got into the nearside rear passenger door of the car and opened the window. I was going home. I’d got a network of friends and family lined up to help me through the first few days out of hospital

The world seemed so big, bright and quiet because everyone was on lockdown. I got home and was confronted by the first staircase I’d seen since I’d been in hospital. No dramas, I could do stairs… and I did. I went into the bathroom and had a shower.

Published by rmcintosh2018

English Teacher and Copywriter

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