A second chance – that’s what I was being given when, having skirted death during that first round of Covid, I left hospital just over a year ago.
I was, I was told, only half way there. It would take twelve more months before my body got back to near where it had been before my illness.
It did. But what a year it’s been – sometimes a struggle, yes, but every day I wake up in my own bed, in my own home, and my first thought is to realise how lucky I am.
My biggest stroke of luck was to survive; 150,000 others didn’t. I was in a wheelchair when they brought me home at the end of September 2020, and, levering myself on crutches up the steps to our front door, was an emotional moment.
Over the following few weeks there would be more upsetting times when I read the emails that my wife Plum had written to our children while I’d been in hospital.
Not allowed to visit me for the first two months of my illness, she’d received daily reports on my condition and had jotted down everything she’d been told. There was the recurrent delirium, the two heart attacks, the stents, the kidney dialysis, the pneumonia, the memory loss and the tracheostomy.
Three times she’d been told I wouldn’t be resuscitated if I suffered any further deterioration, and she’d come to dread the ringing of the phone in case it brought bad news.
But it was only by reading Plum’s notes that I came to fully realize how much she and the families of all the other Covid patients suffered during the pandemic.
There is something selfish about being critically ill, in that, although you don’t realise it at the time, all your thoughts are of yourself. Doctors and nurses do everything they can to take away the pain you are suffering, but they never let you know that the smile they are wearing at your bedside is most likely masking how they are feeling inside as other patients nearby are dying.
Eating had been impossible while I’d been in a coma, so for five months I’d been fed through a tube into my stomach, and when I got home a rig was still plugged into me just above my belly-button. That had to be removed and a week later we took a taxi back to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.
A few steps inside the building, I realized that I couldn’t walk any further on my crutches and had to sit down while Plum went to find a wheelchair.
The world looks different from a wheelchair, I thought, as I watched bright young people in their masks and white gym shoes hurrying past, and found myself apologizing for being in-the-way. That’s what old people do, I thought. I’d never thought of myself as old before my illness.
I had no recollection of the rig having been put into my stomach, but in my mind it was like a tap, with maybe just an inch projecting inside me.
Actually, it was nothing like that. There was no pain, but I watched in alarm as a snake-like tube, about eighteen inches long, was gradually withdrawn from my intestines. It seemed inconceivable that I hadn’t felt it inside me.
For the first month at home I hobbled about with a Zimmer frame, but soon a physio encouraged me to walk with a stick, eventually even going with me to the local shop to buy my newpapers. So, when she didn’t turn up one day, I decided to go alone.
Plum wanted to come with me. But I wouldn’t let her. That’s another thing about being an invalid. You can’t wait to show everyone that you’re fit and independent again.
So, off I went the fifty paces down the road. I was just passing the bar on the corner, and thinking how some scaffolding had been taken down from the shop next door, when…
Bang! My face hit the pavement, the walking stick went flying.
With great good fortune the manager of the bar had seen me fall, and rushed out. Getting a chair, he helped me into it, then called an ambulance.
My face was a mess of blood. The no-clotting pills, which were now part of my l1 pills a day regime, were doing their job too well.
As I sat in the street bleeding, a bar assistant ran to my house to fetch Plum. She was upset. It was the first time she’d let me do anything alone and, having been over-confident, I’d let her down. The ambulance people asked, ‘Have you had a fall?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I tripped up.’
That wasn’t how they saw it. A seventy nine year old man has a fall, not a trip.
There was no waiting in the A and E department, my Covid history at the same hospital pushing me to the head of the queue. But it took hours for the bleeding to stop, during which I was given X-rays and a brain scan before it was decided that the only real damage was to my self-esteem.
For the next four months I never went out alone again, and every night Plum and I would watch the Covid reports on TV. There was a very good one about Michael Rosen, the children’s author, who, I realised had been in intensive care with Covid at the same time that I had, although in another hospital.
I don’t know him, but shared adversity seemed to make us allies, so I wrote him a tweet, telling him how if things had worked out just a bit differently he and I might have met at the Pearly Gates.
To which he replied: ‘Yes, Ray, that would have been nice. You could have told me about John, Paul, George and Ringo.’
By this time I was joking on the phone to friends about by ‘brush with the Reaper’, until my children stopped me. ‘It isn’t funny, Dad. You weren’t there. You don’t know,’ one of them chided me.
Of course, I hadn’t been there. A mile away, I’d been hallucinating my days and nights away in my hospital bed, totally unaware of my condition. I know now that one of the nurses held my hand during some of the most desperate moments, but there was no-one at home to hold Plum’s hand.
By January I could walk a mile and we went to get my first vaccination. I had to stop and sit down on a park bench on both the way there and back, but it was a big day in my recovery.
When I’d been in hospital I hadn’t cared about how I looked, but the mirror in our bathroom was unsparing. Always thin, I’d lost a further stone and a half during my illness, and although a diet of Snickers bars and creamy milk was doing its best for me, I was still under nine stones.
So when a friend offered to give Plum a rest and take me for a walk, I fobbed her off with an excuse. In truth, I didn’t want anyone to see me looking so frail. Besides, my hair, which had fallen out over the months, hadn’t grown back yet. I suppose the return of vanity was a sign of recovery.
Fatigue still swamped me every evening, but the Zimmer frame, crutches and sticks eventually went, and my Long Covid symptoms weren’t nearly so bad as some of those suffered by others.
I can no longer eat red meat or drink more than a glass of watered-down red wine, and I fear I’ll never again be able to run up three flights of stairs to my study or dash to the postbox – although I’ll keep trying. But, after a year as a passenger, I’m driving again.
Best of all, something rather wonderful happened this past summer when I was invited back to the hospital where my life had been saved, to cut the ribbon, make a speech and declare open their new intensive care unit.
To stand with Plum and two of the medical staff who had cared for me at my lowest was one of the great moments of my life. In fact, it changed my life.
For months I wondered why I hadn’t died when so many others had. Now I think I know. Continuing hospital tests on my lungs over the past year have shown that they have 35% better function than the average for my age.
I never knew that, nor ever did anything to keep fit. But it would have made a difference when I was on a ventilator, struggling to breathe and hanging on to life.
I’m now at least 85% back to where I was before I caught Covid, and my attitude to life has changed. Until I was ill, all I wanted to do was work. Writing was my hobby as much as my job. There was always another project.
Now I realise that I’ve travelled in North America and France far more than I have in the UK. There’s still so much here to see, so much architecture and country to be admired, so much gardening to enjoy and friends to see…and Vanity Fair still to finish.
I’m lucky to have been given a second chance. I don’t want to waste it.
Ray Connolly’s radio play, Devoted, about his months in hospital with Covid can be heard on BBC Sounds.