Coronavirus patients who have lived to tell the tale share their stories

The devastating effect of Covid-19 is visible in its terrible death toll — but it has also affected millions of us in other, very different ways. 

Here, eight people share their stories with Lucy Laing. Often moving but inspirational, too, what unites them is the way the infection has changed their lives…

Mother-of-two Christine Fildes was treated for both cancer and coronavirus last year. Christine, 67, who works for the National Blood Service assessing donors, lives with husband Alan, 72, a retired businessman, in Prestwich, Greater Manchester

Double blow with cancer and Covid  

Mother-of-two Christine Fildes was treated for both cancer and coronavirus last year. 

Christine, 67, who works for the National Blood Service assessing donors, lives with husband Alan, 72, a retired businessman, in Prestwich, Greater Manchester. 

She says: Until I had advanced ovarian cancer diagnosed in September 2019, I’d always been healthy. The news was devastating — all sorts of emotions were running through my mind: would my sons and Alan be planning my funeral?

Then, just as I finished six months of chemo, I got Covid, pneumonia and sepsis all in one go, and was back in hospital. It’s been a really tough year.

The cancer is incurable but treatable. After surgery to remove the tumour, my womb and both ovaries, I had my last chemo just a week before lockdown.

I felt ecstatic but didn’t celebrate because I felt so unwell. I was exhausted and couldn’t get my words out properly — I blamed the chemo. Then one night, a week after my last treatment, I collapsed. I managed to shout out to Alan and was blue-lighted to hospital.

I was very ill and was put in an isolation room [for Covid patients]. It was very scary seeing the nurses and doctors in their face masks and gowns, like some horror film. After a week, I went home but was very breathless and couldn’t get up the stairs.

I feel unlucky — cancer robbed me of 12 months and I was set to enjoy life again when I got Covid. But then I’m lucky to still be here.

In May, Cancer Research UK asked me to take part in its fundraising TV advert about people who had battled through cancer and Covid. Now strangers stop me in the street, saying: ‘I’ve seen you on TV’, which is a funny feeling. But it gives me a sense of achievement after all I’ve battled through recently. 

Tracy Maguire's baby Peyton was three weeks old when she contracted Covid in hospital, one of the youngest coronavirus patients in the UK. Tracy, 27, an IT student, lives in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, with husband AJ, 29, a personal trainer

Tracy Maguire’s baby Peyton was three weeks old when she contracted Covid in hospital, one of the youngest coronavirus patients in the UK. Tracy, 27, an IT student, lives in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, with husband AJ, 29, a personal trainer

One of the youngest infected in the UK  

Tracy Maguire’s baby Peyton was three weeks old when she contracted Covid in hospital, one of the youngest coronavirus patients in the UK. Tracy, 27, an IT student, lives in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, with husband AJ, 29, a personal trainer. 

She says: Eight weeks before my due date, I’d gone to the midwife for a check-up — it was in April and Covid restrictions meant AJ couldn’t come: suddenly I had pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure) diagnosed, which can be fatal for the mother and the baby.

I was sent to Wishaw Hospital, where Peyton was delivered six days later by Caesarean, weighing just 3lb 5oz. AJ was allowed in for the birth but had to leave an hour later — and I was only allowed to see Peyton for an hour a day.

She developed a sniffle at three weeks and had a Covid test — it was horrific seeing it done on a baby so small. When they called me later to say she had coronavirus, I couldn’t stop crying. I thought she was going to die.

At first I was told I couldn’t stay, but I said I wasn’t leaving her and they let me stay in her room. AJ wasn’t allowed in — I kept video calling him and each time he hung up, he was terrified it would be the last time he’d see his little girl alive.

It was such a new virus they couldn’t say what was going to happen to Peyton — we didn’t know whether we were going to wake up the next day and find she’d taken a turn for the worse.

Fortunately, after a week, she was well enough to come home. The look on AJ’s face when he could hold her for the first time brought tears to my eyes.

She doesn’t stop laughing now and to see her you wouldn’t know what a traumatic start she had. It’s nothing short of miraculous. 

Steve Banks, 45, was given just a one per cent chance of surviving Covid. The building site manager lives in East Tilbury, Essex, with wife Lisa, 38, a clothing store manager, and their two children

Steve Banks, 45, was given just a one per cent chance of surviving Covid. The building site manager lives in East Tilbury, Essex, with wife Lisa, 38, a clothing store manager, and their two children

Given 1 per cent chance of survival  

Steve Banks, 45, was given just a one per cent chance of surviving Covid. The building site manager lives in East Tilbury, Essex, with wife Lisa, 38, a clothing store manager, and their two children. 

He says: When I first woke up after 50 days on a ventilator, I was completely confused — there was a nurse there clapping and saying ‘well done’ and I had no idea where I was or what had happened. Then she helped me video call Lisa: there were lots of tears.

I’d started feeling unwell on March 17, like someone had clouted me on the head. I went home early — something I never do — and went straight to bed. Lisa rang 111 and they said it sounded like Covid and that we should self-isolate.

By day six my cough was so bad I couldn’t breathe and my temperature was 40c. Paramedics came and checked me out but said I should carry on at home, as they were trying to avoid taking people to hospital unnecessarily.

Two days later I was panting and taking very shallow, quick breaths but was so ill I didn’t really register what was happening.

A midwife friend told Lisa to get me straight to hospital — I was put into an induced coma and Lisa was told I had a one per cent chance of survival as my organs were shutting down. Nurses told her to write messages to be read out at my bedside before I passed away.

Lisa wasn’t allowed back into the hospital and had to call each evening to see if I was still alive. She has since told me she couldn’t sleep at night, as she was so terrified I was going to die.

Amazingly, I managed to hang on and, by May 12, I was off the ventilator. Two days later, the nurses had to use a hoist to get me up off the bed — even then my body felt like a dead weight.

A few days later, I managed to walk a couple of steps with a Zimmer frame and was finally allowed home on May 26. It was so emotional — as I was helped out of the ambulance, a few friends had gathered outside to see me.

One of the doctors said as I left that I was one of the sickest Covid patients they had treated — I was a bit overweight but they don’t know the reason I got it so badly.

I’ve had blood tests sent to a trial at Edinburgh University to see if there’s a genetic predisposition. I’ve since had pneumonia twice and been readmitted to hospital.

I’ve also lost 4 st 6 lb and needed counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder — I’m now paranoid about people getting too close to me, even in the street, as I’m frightened of getting it again.

I’m still breathless, though I hope to be back at work by the spring. 

Made visors for NHS after own battle 

Siobhan Brennan, 50, a GP in Stockport, provided PPE for 1,000 NHS staff. Siobhan lives in Didsbury, Greater Manchester, with partner Noel, 50, an IT specialist, and their two sons

Siobhan Brennan, 50, a GP in Stockport, provided PPE for 1,000 NHS staff. Siobhan lives in Didsbury, Greater Manchester, with partner Noel, 50, an IT specialist, and their two sons

Siobhan Brennan, 50, a GP in Stockport, provided PPE for 1,000 NHS staff. 

Siobhan lives in Didsbury, Greater Manchester, with partner Noel, 50, an IT specialist, and their two sons. 

She says: It was terrifying when the pandemic began, as we didn’t have any PPE: patients were coming in with Covid symptoms and we weren’t protected at all — one of the nurses fell ill and I got it, too.

I was floored by it. I couldn’t leave my bed for days. My breathing was so bad I struggled to finish a sentence — and I’m someone who runs 50 miles a week!

While I was recovering, I saw on Facebook that people were using 3D printers to make visors, so I asked on neighbourhood apps if anyone had any printers.

I set up an online fundraiser through GoFundMe and raised £4,000 — a great reflection of community spirit at that time.

I sourced plastic sheets and elastic — all from online shops — then made enough visors for 1,000 staff and split them between our GP surgery and three hospitals.

I also made wellbeing bags for the hospital staff, who were so rushed off their feet they didn’t have time to source their own toothbrushes and so on, and couldn’t bring their own from home because of the risk of spreading the virus.

People were taking hand sanitiser from our GP surgery, so I contacted local companies making it and distributed hundreds of gallons of that to local GP surgeries, hospitals, hospices and care homes.

Since having Covid, I’ve been wearing PPE at work — a visor, gloves and mask. The other major change is that while we still see some patients face-to-face, there has been a shift to phone calls and video links and I can see this is something that will definitely go on in the future. Wearing PPE will also become normal.

It was wonderful to spend time together as a family over Christmas, but it was tinged with sadness as I haven’t seen my parents in a year, as they are shielding. Hopefully 2021 will bring us all some cheer. 

Fear as kidney op was shelved  

Rob Thomas was waiting for a life-saving transplant that was cancelled in lockdown. 

Rob Thomas was waiting for a life-saving transplant that was cancelled in lockdown

Rob Thomas was waiting for a life-saving transplant that was cancelled in lockdown

Rob, 49, a project manager, lives in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, with wife Christine, 50, a customer care adviser, who was donating the kidney. Rob has two children and Christine three from previous relationships. He says:

We couldn’t believe it when the doctors told us my transplant couldn’t go ahead. We’d been waiting for months and, finally, it was due to go ahead in April. Then days before lockdown (in March), it was cancelled.

There was nothing we could do but wait. It was really worrying — I was poorly, with end-stage kidney failure, and I didn’t know what would happen if I caught Covid.

I’d been diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, where your kidneys enlarge to the size of rugby balls, in 2010, after suffering from high blood pressure. I gradually became more exhausted and had regular kidney infections.

I met Christine in spring 2018, out walking our dogs. We married 12 months later.

In spring 2019, doctors told me that without a kidney transplant, by the next year I could have kidney failure and need dialysis three times a week.

I knew you couldn’t stay on dialysis for ever, so it was not good news. Christine offered her kidney straightaway — and the tests showed she was compatible.

During lockdown one day in May, I collapsed at home and had to be taken to hospital — Christine wasn’t allowed to come and I was concerned about catching Covid.

Fortunately, I was OK and I was discharged the next day. But this just emphasised the worry we had about waiting for the transplant.

Then lockdown ended and, in August, I was the first live donor transplant to be done in Cardiff, after everything had been cancelled.

The relief when we got the call was indescribable. Christine had her operation first — the surgeon came to see me a few hours later to tell me the kidney had been taken out and she was fine. But after my operation, because of Covid restrictions, I could only see Christine by video call, which was very hard.

Two days later, the nurses wheeled me to her doorway and we were allowed to wave to one another. Christine went home after four days and I was in for seven days recovering. It was amazing to get home and be back together.

The surgery has transformed my life. My energy levels have soared and my appetite has come back. And we can spend the evenings together without me falling asleep exhausted by 7pm. 

But I work from home, I don’t go into shops or see people often, as I’m shielding, because I take anti-rejection medication which suppresses your immune system. 

Surgeon helped out as a nurse  

Joel Dunning, 48, a consultant cardiothoracic surgeon at the James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough, worked as an ICU (intensive care unit) nurse to help out

Joel Dunning, 48, a consultant cardiothoracic surgeon at the James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough, worked as an ICU (intensive care unit) nurse to help out

Joel Dunning, 48, a consultant cardiothoracic surgeon at the James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough, worked as an ICU (intensive care unit) nurse to help out. 

Joel lives in Cumbria with wife Sarah, 50, who works in a motorway service station, and teenage children. He says:

As a surgeon I’m used to having a big team, with people to fetch things for me — working as a nurse was a lot harder.

Two weeks before lockdown, all lung cancer surgery — my field of expertise — was stopped for six weeks. An ICU nurse told me how much they needed more nursing staff, so I offered to help.

I spent the next two months there — 20 per cent of staff were sick with the virus at any time, so the unit needed us all.

My role included turning patients to keep them from getting bedsores, cleaning teeth and giving medication through nasal tubes. It was heartbreaking seeing patients without families to visit. I organised a video call for one and it was lovely to see how much better they felt after speaking to their mother for the first time in a month.

Unlike surgery, 12 hours in full PPE was physically demanding and I’d be exhausted at the end of a shift. But nothing could dampen the Dunkirk spirit of the unit.

It was strange going back to my day job — but crucial; six weeks of not operating on lung cancer patients is a terrible thing. Yet I learnt lots as an ICU nurse.

As surgeons we think we save patients, but it’s the nursing staff who spend hours by a patient’s side who also keep them alive. 

Last chance of IVF was threatened  

Jemma Green, 28, got her last chance at IVF before lockdown

Jemma Green, 28, got her last chance at IVF before lockdown

Jemma Green, 28, got her last chance at IVF before lockdown.

Jemma lives in Wainfleet, Lincolnshire, with partner Gary, 38, a chip shop assistant, their daughter, two, and two-month-old twins. 

She says: Just a few weeks after the lockdown, I was told to stop taking the steroid medication that could stop me having a miscarriage.

I’d just had my last two embryos transferred and I couldn’t stop crying at the thought of losing them.

We’d tried to have a family for seven years when doctors found I had problems with my fallopian tubes. IVF was my only hope.

Our daughter Ivy was born in March 2018 after our second attempt. I’d always wanted a big family and we had two viable embryos left in the freezer but we didn’t have the money to store them for another three years.

I managed to get an appointment for the transfer two weeks before lockdown. Then, four weeks later, I had to stop taking the steroids (because they suppress your immune system, a risk for Covid).

It was terrifying being pregnant during lockdown, especially as a twin pregnancy can be more risky. So we didn’t set foot out of the house for three months — I only went out for my scans.

Between 20 and 30 weeks I couldn’t feel the twins moving as much but I was too frightened to go to hospital, so I just had to hope they would be all right. The twins were both born by caesarean on November 4. We are just so relieved they are here, safe and well.

Family told three times he would die 

Brian Mearns, 63, a printer and father of two, survived a UK record of 172 days in intensive care with Covid

Brian Mearns, 63, a printer and father of two, survived a UK record of 172 days in intensive care with Covid

Brian Mearns, 63, a printer and father of two, survived a UK record of 172 days in intensive care with Covid. 

He lives with wife Gillian, 63, in Edinburgh. His eldest daughter Leah, a finance assistant, tells his story.

Between May and July we were called in by the hospital three times to say goodbye to Dad, as they didn’t think he’d make it.

He started to get poorly in the middle of March and kept saying he felt shivery and his back ached.

The GP initially thought he had a kidney infection but, after 13 days, he was coughing and exhausted. I phoned 111 after he fell asleep in the middle of a phone call to me. The operator told him to drive himself to hospital as there was a backlog for ambulances.

Dad was put on a ventilator and, just over a week later, we were called in for the first time. It was such a shock to see him — he was unconscious and I could hardly find the words, I was so upset.

But I told him how much we all loved him and how he needed to fight. At one point, he opened his eyes, looked at Mum and squeezed mine and my sister’s hands.

We were called in again to say goodbye in June, then again in July. I rang the hospital every four hours every day and the consultant called me daily. We only got through it because of the ICU staff.

Dad regained consciousness in August and was moved into a rehabilitation centre in September — he needs an oxygen tank and we have to get a stairlift as his muscles have wasted away.

He came home for good on Christmas Eve. It has changed how I look at life. I don’t take anything for granted any more.

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