20 April 2021

Natasha Sutton: Social Prescriber in Newham, did not dream that the coronavirus would have such a long term impact on her health and wellbeing - and on her ability to do ordinary every day things. Here she shares that happened to her:

Back in February 2020, I worked across six GP surgeries in East London. My commute consisted of a daily walk uphill for 30mins, before getting a train and bus in rush hour. Followed by the same journey home. It equated to a 3-hour daily commute. This is was normal for many, I enjoyed the walk knowing I was getting my daily steps in and raising my heart rate. I spent my evenings at the local country club, partaking in dance, spinning, and yoga and swimming. I spent my weekends with the children at sporting events. 

Gradual Realisation
As the UK faced the start of the spread of the virus, we continued with our hectic lives of 'work hard and play harder.' But I noticed the atmosphere at work began to change. The GPs seemed anxious. Deliveries of facemasks and extra PPE began to appear. Then it deteriorated, as patients began to walk in to try to get appointments due to the phone lines being busy. Many coughing with high temperatures. NHS 111 were not coping with the increased volume of callers. The Governments message to them was to ‘stay at home.’ In health care settings, there was talk that if you went into hospital you only had a 50% chance of coming out. This felt bad.

Feeling Ill
I noticed I began to feel extremely lethargic; I began missing classes and going straight to bed after dinner. In early March, I spent weekends sleeping as my energy levels continued to decline. Then I lost my sense of smell and taste. At the time, this was not considered a symptom, so I attributed it to sinusitis, an infection I had previously. I believed I would eventually fight it off. Of course, it did not.

Unusual Symptoms and Weakness
My husband was now collecting me from the station, as my legs were in a considerable amount of pain. The day we went into lockdown, I physically could not get out of bed. Still I had no cough so following government advice my husband did not believe it to be COVID. I however, had my suspicions. Many of our GPs had been off with the virus and I had been working closely with them, sharing equipment.

The increasing pain in my legs was excruciating, leading to headaches, migraines, and then the tight chest and difficulty breathing. Something-else the government forgot to mention is impaired cognitive functioning. When you are seriously unwell, all the energy and blood goes to your vital organs. Consequently, you lose the ability to think rationally; hold a conversation and for myself the ability to speak.

Not Able to Communicate
My husband brought me meals in bed and left me to rest. I could not hold a conversation so he had no idea how ill I was. One night, I was struggling to breathe, so made my way downstairs so I did not disturb my husband.

With no phone and no ability to call for help, I collapsed in the hallway. That night I was at my worst.  I lay struggling for breath on the floor unable to raise the alarm until the early hours of the morning when I began to feel slightly stronger. I slowly crawled up stairs and got back into bed.

Not Typical Symptoms
I spent 3 weeks in bed being cared for by my husband. He has been my rock. You do not realise how amazing and strong someone is until you're vulnerable. Throughout all this time, I never had a cough, so for my husband there was still doubt. I never did call the doctors, as we were being asked not to.

I had completed a few online NHS 111 forms, where you input your symptoms and it offers advice. Each time it said. ‘Call 999 immediately.’ I ignored this, partly due to fear of dying, partly due to concern for how my children would cope with the stress and anxiety. It is important to remind you all, there were no home testing kits at the time. I had to wait to access the antibody test available to NHS workers. Of course, I tested positive. So at the time, I believed I would be fine. A year later, I am still very much not fine. 

Shocked at How Changed I was
I returned to work remotely; fortunately, this is still the case. Followed by multiple calls to my GP, blood tests, x-rays etc. it was over a month before I left the house and tried to walk the dogs around the block with my husband. Ten minutes in, I could barely breathe and my body was so weak, it was physically impossible. I sat on the curbside waiting for my husband to get the car and rescue me. Six months post virus, I was beginning to consider life in a wheelchair.

I am pleased to say, I have slowly improved, and no longer thinking about that life. However, the chest tightness, the shortness of breath continues to this day. Not so much when I  am resting or sitting now. Mostly when I attempt to be physically active. I am far from the days of dance and spinning classes. My current baseline is approximately 25-minute walk slowly around the block on flat ground 3 x a week and a weekly supermarket shop at the weekend.

Setbacks
Last month I attempted to increase my walk by 5 minutes, which resulted in a relapse. Some days you feel as though you will be okay. However, 24 hours following exertion, you begin to have all kinds of symptoms. This lasts for most of the following week, whereby you are unable to go for your walk, you have to sleep during the day and go to bed after dinner.

Speech Issues
I have counted a total 35 different symptoms. Fortunately, I no longer experience the excruciating pain in my limbs. However, it still occurs at a lesser intensity. Some of the worst symptoms included hair loss. This was awful as handfuls begin to fall out caused by the trauma experienced by your body. It is I think beginning to regrow. Speech distortion was another embarrassing symptom. As the day went on, I struggled with speech and memory. I forgot common words, I slurred and stuttered. One day I wanted to ask my son to close the blinds and I had no recollection of the name, ‘blinds.’ It went on for months. I am pleased to say this has now returned to normal.

I am still on reduced working hours, and fear I may need to make this a permanent fixture. I have been through 12 weeks of long COVID rehab and hope to raise awareness of this debilitating condition. As restrictions begin to lift, it will become more apparent, how many people continue to struggle?

I am one of the lucky ones; I am alive to share my story
It has been 13 months since I fell ill with the virus, and my recovery continues. I am one of the lucky ones; I am alive to share my story. My colleagues, my family and friends have given me the strength to continue with this uphill struggle. One day I hope I will be walking up that hill again!

For those of you in the early days of recovery, my advice would be to be patient and kind to yourself. I know it sounds crazy, but only attempt 5 mins of exertion a day before considering increasing it. It is a long journey.

And if you have escaped contracting the virus, get the COVID vaccine as soon as you are able to. Whilst the majority of people do survive this horrble virus, many will not be the same again or not for a long time. Don't let that be you!

Photograph: Female legs in blue leggings stretching out on bed by Anna Nekrashevich from Pexels