A Tale of Two COVIDs – Part 2: When Omicron strikes…

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“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.

About the author

The MS Bloggger

15 comments

  • I’m sorry to hear of your bad experience with Covid , I hope you feel better by the day !

    I felt I just wanted to give another experience for those reading as what you went through was my biggest fear ! But thankfully I had a mild case.

    I am in Australia and I tested positive 7 days ago . I’m 40 , I’ve been on Ocrevus 5 years . Ive had 3 x Pfizer vaccines ( last one in Nov 2021 ) and last Ocrevus Dec 23rd. I tested positive to covid Jan 7th and thankfully coped very well . My wonderful MS team in Melbourne have been in contact with me regularly to check and see I’m doing ok but all OBs were good . Oxygen levels between 98 and 100. Blood work good and chest X-ray good . Ive had a bad cough , lost my voice , mild sweats and a little more tired than usual. No Anti virals needed . I feel so very lucky , now at day 7 I feel back to myself . Not sure if my high Vitamin D levels (177) helped, also took high dose vitamin c and iron . Plus daily smoothies filled with veg and supplements. I feel so thankful and just wanted people to know that everyone is so different. I wish everyone the very best and hope many more people take a mild course and to the many people who don’t or haven’t I send you lots of love and strength. Take care .

    Ps. Wondering If reinfection can take a different course ? Is natural immunity possible?

  • Sajiv Javid says the 1.3m people most at risk from Covid have been sent a PCR test. If they test positive, they can get an antiviral treatment, he says.
    Is that the case for all pwMS in the UK?

    • No. I’ve had nothing (consultant care under a large NE hospital). But going by conversations in Facebook groups, many have.

    • I’m on Tysabri (getting a dose today at the RLH🙂). Got back off holiday last week to find a home PCR kit waiting for me.
      I dodged a bullet over Christmas, one of my friends took a lateral flow on Xmas Eve – negative, went to her son’s for Xmas dinner and I picked her up afterwards as I don’t drink now so get taxi duty.
      Boxing day they all tested positive. It seems she caught COVID there but wasn’t contagious when I had her as a passenger😷.
      We’ve both had 3 jabs, but the Omicron variant hasn’t been taught how to count and totally ignores that 😄, thankfully although she has lung problems the symptoms were reduced and no hospital stay was required.

    • Some of us have received the pcr test kit, alongside the nhs number to call if the result is positive, but makes no sense this hasn’t been applied to everyone in the UK who has MS.

      Hells bells, we know that the advice is to avoid the flu; that infections, especially upper respiratory, can trigger relapses and that the longer term neurological damage is worse in these circumstances, so it is highly pertinent for anyone with !S to be offered antivirals if hit by Covid!

  • Blimey, thanks for sharing this beautifully written piece, Christine. A reminder to take this so-called ‘mild’ variant seriously. Even if our government doesn’t. Good luck in your recovery.

  • Thank you Christine for joining with Rachel in providing the Blog with an account of your experience with Covid.

    I feel almost bad for the need to express yet more frustrated anger, but: you were sent home as ‘seem to be ok’?! This totally lack of an adequate response is gobsmacking!

    As we all know, the media and medical sites are now reporting all the very concerning impacts of even mild Covid, and especially for those of us with a neurological condition, the requirement to provide the most robust medical response shouldn’t be in any doubt! You should not have been left in the position of needing to call 999.

    The end of your post is also poignant: how very much we find ourselves pointing the finger of blame at ourselves regards what we both do and don’t do in all areas of our lives. This has taken on a whole other level with Covid. Logically and rationally you know that thousands of PwMS with have taken themselves out and met with family over the festive period, and yet you can’t prevent yourself from the focus on the meal out and using the tube.
    On top of the awful experience you’ve had with Covid, it seems unjust that it provides the self recriminatory aspect too!

    Very best wishes with your recovery and with processing the whole experience. I hope you can be kind to yourself in reframing it and that you find you’re completely well again soon.

    • thanks Fi, it helped to write about it – which I wouldn’t usually wish to. It still has to be said that Captain Sensible needs to get back behing the controls for my friendss peace of mind.

    • Thank you Fi, it’s a hard call but I hope people can just see if there are any parallels which might protect them from our experiences. The real work needs to be done calling out a disjointed stressed health service which inadvertently lets people fall through the gaps so many times – often because there is a complete lack of joined up thinking, or worse still historic turf wars. During this pandemic how many PWMS never ended up on a vulnerable list befor it was changed and changed into oblivion quite often with competing public health agencies giving directly contradictory advice. That’s just my view but it’s a measurable outcome of how many PWMS took the hit during the pandemic

  • Yes I got a PCR in the post after Christmas with instructions about when to ring a number if I get symptoms. The letter classes me as vulnerable, but in 2020 I wasn’t in the vulnerable group. Nothing’s changed and I take no meds and not on DMTs. Maybe it’s a postcode thing.
    I’m surprised that in Christine’s case AND in Rachel’s, doctors sent them home after being told they were immunocompromised. It suggests that doctors treating for covid in A&E and triage need to know much more about immunosuppressants.
    I got a pulse oximeter at the start of the pandemic and would urge everyone who’s vulnerable to get one. Prof. G recommends them strongly.

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