Rolling over on to his left side, Hugh Mullally wondered where his bedside table had gone. Come to think of it, his duvet had been replaced by a white sheet too. How odd. Was his mind playing tricks? Had he been dreaming?
Then came a nervous twitch in the pit of his stomach. Suddenly, in fragments, he began to recall the past two weeks.
He was not tucked up in bed next to his wife, Karen, at their home near Bath. He was in hospital, in intensive care, coming round from a nine-day medically induced coma, after becoming critically ill with coronavirus. A tune popped into his head – Who Knows Where The Time Goes? by Sandy Denny, his favourite folk song.
Hugh Mullally, pictured, was given ten minutes by doctors to say his final goodbyes to his wife Karen, and children Tara, 24, and Ciaran, 23
One of the last things he remembered was telling Karen, daughter Tara, 24, and son Ciaran, 23, to listen to it, as a way of remembering him. And as he began to take in his wider surroundings – the bleeping, the bright lights, the blurred bodies – the music played over and over in his head. It was all Hugh, a 65-year-old IT consultant, could focus on.
Remarkably, only a week and a half earlier, doctors had given him just ten minutes to say his final goodbyes. Having suffered worsening symptoms at home for a week, on March 20, he was admitted to hospital. The next day, at 4am, his blood oxygen levels plummeted. His only hope for survival was intensive care: being put on the ventilator – a machine that takes over the work of breathing when the disease causes the lungs to fail.
The treatment buys patients vital time to fight off the infection and recover. But it is invasive: a tube, attached to the equipment, is inserted through the throat and down into the lungs. Patients must be heavily sedated or fully anaesthetised to tolerate it.
Hugh was told it was likely he wouldn’t wake up. As he waited to be put to sleep, he called Karen to tell her what was going to happen. ‘I had so little time, I had to think of something meaningful, quickly,’ he says. That’s when he stumbled on the idea of a song. The lyrics are about treasuring the precious time you have with loved ones.’
Later that day, Hugh’s family gathered in their local park to listen to it – and pray for their dad and husband – together.
But Hugh did recover. Ever so slowly he began to wake up. The first few conscious hours were ‘dream-like, sort of a fantasy’, he says. ‘I remember a faint itch inside my chest, where the tube of the ventilator had been.’
The sense of total physical weakness was something Hugh, who plays for a local veterans’ football team, found especially tough.
‘I remember someone asking me if I could move from my bed,’ he says. ‘And I couldn’t. Not for days. My legs were like lead.’
‘I’d been fed nutrients and water through a drip for ten days, so there was the constant feeling of unbelievable thirst – even though I wasn’t dehydrated. A nurse nearby must have noticed, despite me not being able to talk properly. So she dabbed a wet sponge around my mouth so I could feel the moisture, without swallowing much. It felt wonderful.’
Karen knew to expect a phone call from her husband – doctors had been providing the family with daily updates. But when she heard his voice for the first time, two days after he woke up, she struggled to speak between tears of joy. ‘She cried and cried with happiness and disbelief that I’d made it. We both did,’ says Hugh.
The family weren’t allowed into his room – but two weeks later, when he was transferred from intensive care to a coronavirus ward, they could see each other through the window beside Hugh’s bed. ‘The first time the kids came was overwhelming,’ he says. ‘They shouted about how proud they were of me through the window.’
But it wasn’t until almost a month later – after two weeks of social distancing, post-discharge, were they finally reunited. He says: ‘My son Ciaran stared at me and said, “Dad – do you think it’s OK for me to hug you now?”
Do I mask-up outside and what if I can’t stay 2m away from others?
Q Should I be wearing a mask while socialising or exercising outdoors?
A: When outside, as long as you can keep two metres away from people who are outside your household or bubble at all times, you don’t need to wear a mask.
This is because the virus spreads less easily outdoors.
It can be difficult to socialise while wearing a mask, so instead of taking it on and off all the time when you want to speak, make sure you keep at a safe distance.
And of course, wash your hands.
You must wear a mask on public transport – and it is also a good idea to do so when you go to the shops, post office or bank.
Q Is it really safe to go shopping now?
A From tomorrow, non-essential shops in England – including those selling clothes, toys and electronics – will be allowed to open for the first time since lockdown.
Measures have been introduced to make the experience as safe as possible for both customers and staff.
While rules are likely to vary between shops, shoppers will be reminded to maintain good social-distancing and wash their hands regularly with sanitizers or soap.
Retailers are likely to discourage touching and handling of products that people aren’t planning to buy, and most changing rooms will remain closed.
The Government is also encouraging people to shop alone if they can, to minimise social contact.
Q What should I do if I can’t stay two metres apart from someone?
A Coronavirus is spread in tiny droplets, emitted when someone coughs, sneezes or even talks. So the closer you are to someone infected, the greater your risk of catching it.
But if you come within two metres of others, don’t panic.
A study published in medical journal The Lancet found that staying one metre apart also helped reduce the chances of infection.
It’s best to keep the amount of time you are within two metres of people to a minimum – and try to avoid face-to-face contact in close proximity.
‘I didn’t want to let him go.’
Having been in hospital since the end of March, Hugh was unaware of the ‘new normal’, now familiar to the rest of the country. ‘When I was lucid again, my 90-year-old mother called and said: “Can we Zoom?” ’ he remembers. ‘I thought: What the hell does that mean?’ Now, two months on, he is enjoying two-hour walks and planning a five-a-side football match.
Intensive care has always had chilling connotations – even before the pandemic. If you’re admitted to the ward for the most acutely ill, it’s assumed that you are nearing the end. Many patients, such as Hugh, will be sedated and attached to ventilators to support their failing organs. Tubes are fed through the wrist, neck, arm and groin, to clear waste quickly and offer delivery of medication. Potent painkillers and anti-infection medication mean most are in and out of consciousness.
About eight per cent of people in their 50s with Covid-19, and 12 per cent of those in their 60s, require hospital treatment. About one in five people hospitalised are taken into an intensive treatment unit (ITU). Half of these patients, sadly, lose their lives.
But Dr Ron Daniels, intensive care consultant at Birmingham Hospital, urges people not to think of this kind of treatment as the end of the road. ‘Last week I said goodbye to a 75-year-old with Covid-19 who had left intensive care after being on a ventilator for almost two months,’ he says. ‘We bought him a bottle of whisky to celebrate when he started to recover – he said he’d been craving a tipple.’
Equally astonishing is the story of 62-year-old Walter Roux, who survived eight weeks in intensive care – two of which he spent ventilated. The railway executive, from Surrey, began to feel unwell after returning from Italy in February. Walter, who lives alone, grew increasingly breathless, with rocketing fevers. Scared for his life, he called an ambulance.
In hospital, he tested positive for Covid-19. He recalls a discussion with his doctor, who was telling him to eat supper, even though he felt queasy. And then, nothing.
His condition deteriorated rapidly, causing Walter to sink into unconsciousness.
Doctors rushed him to ITU where he was fully sedated, and ventilated. Over the following days – while in a coma – he suffered two minor heart attacks and his kidneys began to fail. Ten days later, he woke up. The ‘spider web’ of tubes around him was the biggest shock. Although no longer on a full ventilator, he’d been given a tracheostomy – a tube inserted through a hole made in the windpipe. This was attached to another type of ventilation machine, supporting Walter’s weakened lungs, which doesn’t require the patient to be sedated.
‘The first thing I did was move my mouth over and over, trying to speak,’ he says. The tube of a tracheostomy affects the voice-box – rendering patients speechless. ‘It took a while to realise no sound was coming out,’ he recalls. ‘Not that I had much energy to even try. I had to communicate by writing to nurses on pieces of paper or my phone. And knowing that my children wouldn’t be able to hear my voice was very painful. When I woke up I thought that I was in my house. But everything was upside down. I kept seeing strange objects that wouldn’t belong in a hospital. Then they’d disappear.’
Sedative drugs and painkillers are known to cause hallucinations and ‘post-operative delirium’ in up to half of all patients. Walter says: ‘It’s stopped me sleeping, which is traumatic in intensive care with all the loud noises and people rushing around at night.’
His psychological trauma rings true for Victoria and Albert Museum chairman and former publishing boss Nicholas Coleridge. Within hours of his hospital admission, the 63-year-old, who contracted the virus in March, got the ‘hint’ that his chances of survival were slim. ‘The doctors were chillingly blunt with my wife and daughter,’ says Nicholas, who lives in West London. ‘They phoned and said they were rushing me to intensive care and I wasn’t going to make it.’
There was no time for final goodbyes – Nicholas was already in his own world. ‘My mind was completely befuddled,’ he says. ‘Beforehand, they’d pumped me with gallons of oxygen. All I could see were visions of serpents and snakes, like a terrifying fantasy.’
Thankfully, Nicholas’s lung capacity improved rapidly – and he narrowly escaped ventilation. Just 48 hours later, he was awake – although it didn’t feel like it. ‘I never once thought I was going to die,’ says Nicholas. ‘I know my family didn’t feel the same, but it all seemed to be over very quickly for me. I told them I planned on coming home as soon as possible. And 12 days later, I did.’
Today, Hugh Mullally says he feels ‘almost’ back to his pre-coronavirus self, after weeks of intensive physiotherapy. ‘Yesterday I did a three-mile walk,’ he says. ‘But I really felt it. I’m sleeping more than ever before.’
Nicholas Coleridge feels in a similar condition. ‘I’d say I am 98 per cent back to health. Six weeks after coming out of intensive care, I’ve done two 12-mile walks.’
Patients who survive intensive care, can take up to a year before they fully recover. ‘Most patients return to about 90 per cent of their normal function after a year and more than half are back at work,’ says Dr Daniels. ‘But this can be longer for those who have been on a ventilator.’
For Walter Roux, who has now spent close to three months in hospital, recovery will be a struggle. He is undergoing intensive physiotherapy to help him walk. And six weeks ago, the tube in his throat was removed – finally, he could speak again.
‘The sound of my own voice was very strange and squeaky,’ says Walter, who is facing another two to three weeks in hospital.
‘The first thing I did was call my three children. It was good timing because I’d just swallowed my first drop of water for the first time. It was so pure, like crystal and I wanted to tell them how amazing it tasted. My family say I survived because many people were praying for me.’
Hugh agrees: ‘My mother is Catholic and went to Mass every day while I was unconscious. And lots of people at the children’s charity I am involved with were doing the same. I have a new-found belief in the power of prayer. I’ve a feeling there’s something else for me to do. Like I have been spared for a reason.’
After kidney transplant, the virus… and then a miraculous recovery
Thousands watched with bated breath as 48-year-old Hussein opened his eyes – having spent three weeks on a ventilator, fighting for his life.
The remarkable moment was captured on camera, as part of BBC2’s fly-on-the-wall documentary, Hospital.
The father-of-three had a kidney transplant back in mid-March – putting him in the category of patients with only a 30 per cent chance of survival should they catch Covid-19.
Father of three Hussein, pictured, had a kidney transplant in March, though shortly afterwards, he contracted Covid-19 – which left him with a 30 per cent chance of survival. He was treated with experimental drugs which saved his life
Tragically, just two weeks after surgery, he was back at the Royal Free Hospital in London with the virus.
With his lungs failing to respond to oxygen, doctors had no choice but to put him on a ventilator. He was also given the experimental drug Anakinra, which fights inflammation caused by the immune system.
Against all odds, Hussein began to improve. And at the end of week three, doctors woke him up – and removed the ventilator. He was discharged at the beginning of May and is now recovering at home. ‘It’s a miracle,’ says Hussein’s wife Andrea, who is thrilled the couple can finally celebrate their ten-year wedding anniversary.
Recalling the moment she was told Hussein might not make it, she says: ‘They told me they were going to try some medication that they didn’t expect to work.’
But his consultant Professor Alan Salama now says they are more hopeful: ‘Drugs like Anakinra stop the immune system going into overdrive – and anecdotally are proving effective, but need to be tested in formal clinical trials.’