My life during and after being sick with Covid-19 - ESRA

ESRA Updates

November 2020 | Issue 03

My life during and after being sick with Covid-19

Steve Coppens (Co-editor of ESRA Updates, UZ Leuven, Belgium) @Steve_Coppens
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I am cured but I still vividly remember my experience with the sickness. It’s lingering aftermath still affects me to this day.

When the department of anesthesiology at UZLeuven, Belgium opened up their own ICU for Covid-treatment, we were all pumped to help out. Our other routine ICU units had filled up and it was our turn to help out the needy!

I was on call in our brand-new readymade ICU first night when the first patients arrived. The changing into full PPE is nightmarish and can only be fully understood by people who had to work in that attire for hours on end. Twenty-four hours and some intubations later I was tired but happy with a job well-done. The next few days I worked as ultrasound vascular access expert at the normal Covid-19 wards putting in central and midline catheters.

It was only a week later that I felt this enormous tiredness set in. It wasn’t really a feeling I had ever experienced before. Even now it is still pretty hard to explain. Imagine your body weight being doubled or even tripled. Every step you take feels like your wading through a marsh, which holds you back. I fell asleep at my desk at least five times during normal working hours. The strange thing is I had no other symptoms, no cough, no respiratory difficulties or fever. I didn’t experience any taste or smell deterioration either but somehow this huge lethargy and overwhelming tiredness just didn’t feel right. I did not connect the dots just yet though.

The next day however this fatigue kept getting worse, I finally decided to check on my pulse oximetry. It read 93… and only then did I realize the exhaustion was probably the real deal.

It took me some time to convince anybody I needed a test. The symptoms I had could have just been stress, anxiety and the feeling of being overwhelmed by the new tasks and the changing reality of a covid-19 world.

«[…] somehow this huge lethargy and overwhelming tiredness just didn’t feel right.»

At the end of the next evening I received a swab, basically still only feeling extremely feeble and weary. Next day I got a pretty dry message over the phone telling me, I tested positive. I received the news without really thinking about the implications. I just checked my work e-mail and sent out a message to my colleagues. I would go into quarantine and I didn’t really feel sick, so I would see them back in two weeks’ time probably. Little did I know at the time.

It wasn’t till 4 days after my positive swab that I started to have some respiratory problems. It was very subtle at first, I didn’t even notice till my partner said I was breathing heavier and faster than normal. It was the beginning of what would become a real terrifying ordeal. All the other symptoms came into quick succession. Coughing, sweating, fever, even the crushing tiredness became more imposing. I sank into sleep for most of the day, lost all appetite except for sipping some water or tea. I ultimately decided that the symptoms where really alarming and I decided to go check up at the emergency department.

I distinctly recall being hauled over to radiology to perform a CT-scan. They took a blood gas and a full blood check up and I received an IV-line. It was a rather frightful experience to be on the other side of the care program, looking up at the emergency department ceiling, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
The news that I had typical covid-19 lung lesions not that severe to warrant ICU admission, came kind of as a surprise but also a huge relief. I promised to return as fast as I could if the situation took a turn for the worst and hoped this would be as bad as it got.

However, the respiratory distress lasted another week and exhaustion took almost all of the rest of my power. At the end of the second week of breathlessness I felt like I was on the losing end of the battle. Nevertheless, after one of the worst bouts of fever, I started to respire more relaxed. A gastroenteritis lasting a full third week ended the worst of my disease.

«The news that I had typical covid-19 lung lesions not that severe to warrant ICU admission, came kind of as a surprise but also a huge relief.»

Finally, I could start working on my condition again. I wasn’t really expecting it to be that hard though. Mere walking felt like fast running. I perceived using the stairs like I had to pass an insurmountable obstacle. In addition, I began to notice that although I did not lose taste or smell, the virus had changed at least part of my olfactory sensations and taste buds. To my terror I discovered I could not stand the taste, nor the smell of coffee anymore. What a disaster for an anesthesiologist! The horror!!! (😀) When I started to prepare meals and started cooking again, my partner noticed I made it so spicy and hot it was beyond eatable for her anymore. The dulling of my flavor senses has gradually gotten better since, however it remains changed to this very day.

Besides all that I still experience some focus issues. Concentration is not as it used to be. I tend to be even more forgetful then I already was (those who really know me, understand my chaotic character and agenda 🙂). Strangely enough I seem to have a harder time hearing and understanding soft voices, I searched online for info, though I never found any others complaining about auditive decline it certainly has changed since my illness. Finally, I decided on buying a home trainer and getting some muscle back. Gradually I recovered some of my strength. It took me a full 6 weeks to get back to work and I started part-time for the first week. I had really missed my colleagues and the work I do. Although on calls were really hard and the convalescence is still on ongoing process, I feel like I just won a very special battle.

This period of my life was not purely perceived as negative. I learned there are lots of people who care for me. I was overwhelmed by the amount of messages from all my colleagues in the ESRA, at my hospital, family and friends. Through this story I would also like to thank each and every one of you who mailed me and wished me swift return of health.

I also learned again the value of a healthy body. Guess the cliché is absolutely true you only value things when you truly risk of losing it. In fact, I started living a little bit healthier than I had before Covid-19. Losing a few kilograms helped me stimulate some exercise and get more in shape.

I guess all in all you could say the experience made me lose some things, but I also gained a lot. It has changed my way of thinking and maybe even my whole life.

Topics: Doctor , Recovery , COVID-19

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