“I couldn’t breathe properly. It felt like this was going to end badly. Frankly I was scared stiff.…”
Christine Chapman is a film editor living in London. She is in her mid 60’s has MS, is on Ocrevus and had been triple vaccinated. Before Christmas she caught the Omicron variant of Covid-19 and came very close to paying the highest price.
This is her story…
“About a week before Christmas, I went out with friends for dinner at a restaurant. It was hilarious, a real treat with a matching price tag so I took the Tube home. There was a guy coughing and spluttering, waving a thread-bare handkerchief about. Everybody else moved carriages, but I couldn’t because the speeding train was throwing me off-balance.
A few days later, I began to feel ill: very tired and very short of breath. It felt like someone was standing on one side my chest in sharp stilettos. For the next five days, I kept on taking lateral flow tests – sometimes two in a day – but the results were always negative. I thought ‘This is ridiculous.’ I was sure I had the new Omicron variant reported from South Africa as I had back, shoulder and chest pains.
So I got an Uber, went to the local sports centre and had a PCR test. I also ordered a pulse oximeter – which measures oxygen saturation in the blood.
The next morning at around 12, I got the results by text. It was positive. My GP, who knew I was clinically vulnerable because I’m on an immunosuppressant MS drug, called me about ten minutes later. He had also seen the result. He said: “We’re ringing Chelsea & Westminster Hospital who have the drugs you need.”
However, he did warn me it might be too late if I had the symptoms for more than 5 days. It turns out it was too late but I never heard back from the hospital.
By now the pulse oximeter I ordered had arrived. I took some readings. My blood oxygen level was at 82%. I knew this was way too low as a normal reading is 96-100% – I was feeling really awful. I felt I was losing control of the situation and I didn’t know what to do. I called 111. (In the UK, 111 is a free, non-emergency number to call for people with non-threatening illness or injuries. While 999 is for life-threatening emergencies.)
After a long conversation with the medical advisor trying to explain I was clinically vulnerable, had MS and therefore was likely to have a more severe illness, she agreed to call an ambulance.
After a four-hour wait, an ambulance took me to A&E at my local Ealing Hospital. I was immediately triaged and put into an observation room. A doctor questioned me. I explained about my MS and being on Ocrevus which blunted vaccine effectiveness. He said to me: “You don’t seem that bad” and discharged me.
I actually walked the ten minutes back home – thinking perhaps I wasn’t ill anyway. I just don’t understand why I did not take in the seriousness of my situation.
For two decades, I had worked as a news producer covering conflicts that were kicking off in the fractured crumbling former eastern European communist states. Before then I cut my teeth in a very moody and angry South Africa in full succession crisis.
It’s nothing special, you are there to expain the story, it’s usually cold, often boring and not at all glamourous. We all knew how to take care of ourselves and the team. I was a safe pair of hands, never took chances without measuring risk, so why didn’t my normal self-defence mechanisms kick in?
Back home I had a high temperature. I couldn’t keep anything down. It was getting harder and harder to breathe. I really thought this was it. There’s nothing I can do. You feel things are slipping away from you and you can’t help starting to give in. Sounds shocking, but it’s not.
My friend Jane who is a theatre sister called. She could hear I was in bad shape. I told her my oximeter reading. “F—k! This is not right,” she said. She told me call 999 and not to bother with 111.
Unfortunately I seem to have then fallen asleep from exhaustion. I woke up sharply about an hour later knowing I had to call 999 fast. Within twenty minutes an ambulance arrived. They immediately put me on oxygen and took me to Ealing Hospital. I was on the COVID ward for eight days. I was put on dexamethasone, thiamine and Ronapreve and, of course, oxygen.
I also had lost about 6 kg in less than ten days, largely through dehydration. I don’t remember much of my hospital stay. All I remember was the endless search for sleep, no sense of time night or day, hearing endless bleeps and people crying, intense thirst and – for some strange reason at least two New Year’s Eve countdowns.
I am at home now. I am tired and everything seems to take longer. I have to dig deep to focus and complete, but it is getting better each day. I am so pleased to be back among my friends – all of whom rallied far more than I deserve.
So how do you handle the experience of something like COVID-19? Should it be rationalised or just put in a box called bizarre events?
I think there’s been one huge learning lesson and it comes from understanding the way MS affects me. All my friends know over the past 10 years my emotional processing has become ridiculously slow. It can take a few days for me to process that something has happened which was good, fortunate, annoying, hurtful or morally wrong. It’s a well-known joke among us.
The ability to react with a degree of appropriate emotional intelligence seems to have deserted me. That could be why I caught Omicron – eating in a restaurant, taking public transport home – and why it took me so long to call 999. Was this the flaw that took me far too close to the edge? I should have understood that.“
Christine is on Twitter: @cannedpictures
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Barts and The London School of Medicine & Dentistry nor Barts Health NHS Trust.