First published in the Daily Mail 13.10.2020.
From the very beginning I was afraid of Covid 19. That was in January when I first began to read reports of deaths in China. If that ever reaches the UK I’ll do everything I can to avoid catching it, I told myself.
So, when it did inevitably arrive, my wife, Plum, and I at 79, and by age both classed as vulnerable, went into virtual isolation, she cancelling her choir, me refusing any social engagements.
And, because I was more worried about her than myself, I did the shopping alone during the first part of April, three times to a supermarket, once to a D-I-Y shop and another to a garden centre. No big crowds in any of them.
With no masks by then available online, my mouth and nose were always wrapped in a scarf when I went out; while at home, in a break between writing projects, I decorated our bedroom.
The first suggestion that, despite my caution, all might not be right came when I developed a cough. Initially, I put it down to fumes from the paint, but then I found I couldn’t eat anything other than ice cream. My wife phoned our GP and he recommended a course of antibiotics to prevent other infections in case I did have the virus.
A day or so later a friend phoned me and my speech was suddenly incomprehensible. Plum dialled the 111 NHS helpline.
I’m told that an ambulance was at our house within 20 minutes and I was driven away. That was the last time I would see my home for five and a half months. The date was April 15. I have no recollection of the events of that day or of any other days until the end of July. Most of those three months are a complete blank in my mind.
Within a few hours of being admitted, it was confirmed that I had Covid 19, and, as I was moved around the wards at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, it became quickly clear that I had a particularly nasty form of the disease.
During breaks in my sleep when I was just about conscious, and with Plum not allowed to see me, I began phoning my children telling them that I’d been kidnapped by the NHS, pleading with them to ‘get me out of this place’. The doctors and nurses were, I told them, ‘all dressed as monkeys’. They were, in fact, all wearing full PPE, but that was, I would later realise, the first of many terror deliriums.
An unhappy episode followed as the hospital staff struggled to convince me to wear a CPAP mask to help me breathe, one doctor phoning Plum at ten past four in the morning, asking her to try to reason with me. She couldn’t, so I was moved to the intensive care unit and put into an induced coma and kept alive by a life-support machine.
I know all this, not because I was aware of any of it, but because Plum kept careful notes of every conversation with the doctors and nurses at the hospital so that she could inform our three children. Reading, this week, the emails she sent them has been upsetting, as, every day, she informed them of my rapidly declining health while one crisis or infection followed another.
My lungs were the first target for the virus, and then came pneumonia and kidney dialysis and a tracheotemy, which was basically a hole put in the front of my throat, through which a ventilator did much of the breathing for me, while rendering me speechless. As I was so heavily sedated I imagine my inability to talk was the least of my worries.
Then there were two heart attacks, and a day out to the West Middlesex Hospital where a couple of stents were put in place. Before I got Covid, I’d never had any indication that there was anything wrong with my heart, my lungs or my kidneys.
The month of May was the worst time when on three occasions doctors told Plum that, as I was so weak, if my heart stopped beating no attempt would be made to resuscitate me. It seemed that as well as persistent atrial fibrillation, when the rhythm of my heart would suddenly change, my life was hanging on a single beat.
Of course, deep into the slumber of my coma, when I was first being fed via a tube through my nose and then by way of another tube directly into my stomach, I knew nothing of the innumerable problems the doctors and nurses faced as they struggled to keep me alive. But they never gave in. They saved my life.
Unaware of their efforts for my body, my brain was conjuring up a series of hallucinations. We all have dreams and nightmares, but these were different. What passed through my mind during those months was so realistic that for weeks after I believed that the incidents I had been imagining were really happening.
One hallucination took me to Santa Monica in California for an operation, which I then recounted to one of the doctors at my bedside. Rather than draw my attention to my uncertain mental health at that time, he smiled kindly and changed the subject. It was left to my son Dominic to bring me back to reality when he was eventually allowed in to see me.
‘America?’ he said. ‘Dad, you haven’t been out of this room or this bed in months.’
Some of these mental adventures were disturbing. In one I was eight years old in a hospital ward, hiding under the sheets as a paedophile roamed the beds trying to find me; while another had me in India facing a frighteningly angry mob when I upset a wizened old guru.
A third was the most confusing in that it starred a group of NHS nurses (some of whom I recognised as being my carers and among the kindest people in the world) as they ignored my pleas and took over our house to make a comedy film in which they ripped out our bath and replaced it with a juke box.
Some of the fantasies are amusing to remember now. There was, for instance, one in which broadcaster Mishal Husain phoned and asked me to write a play for her. Despite the fact that I’ve only met her briefly at the BBC, I don’t seem to have been surprised by the sudden request. Having agreed to write the play I then invited her to accompany Plum and me and friends on a trip to Norway the next day where we all slept out under the stars in sleeping bags.
Even with Mishal Husain as a companion, camping out without a tent is just about the last thing I would consciously ever even consider.
When my family were still unable to visit me, the nurses suggested they send me photographs of people and posters in my life, as well as images of my garden, to encourage me, while playing Elvis and Beatles records to me. The thought was right, until my daughter, Louise, pointed out that I was more likely to respond to a doo-WOP group from the Fifties.
It was, however, my reaction to Runaway, by Del Shannon, that my son Kieron remembers most clearly. When finally allowed to visit me, he saw how, with my eyes closed, I suddenly began mouthing the lyrics with my hand in the air as though I was playing the notes on the organ in the song’s instrumental break.
I like to think this was a key moment in my recovery. I remained speechless, but, I’m told, I would come alive as best I could when Plum and Kieron sang the Everly Bothers’ Devoted To You down the phone. That song had long been a favourite in our family.
I was still very muddled, however. For some reason I got it into my head that we had sold our house and bought another. So, when Plum insisted that she was still living in the same place I decided she had Alzheimer’s Disease because she didn’t know where she lived any more. The children eased my worries by agreeing that they would keep an eye on her for me.
So the summer dragged on into July as, one by one, the various medicines were changed, the ventilator was taken away, my voice was restored and Plum visited me every afternoon.
Only then as I spent more and more time awake did I realise that the months of lying in bed had left me unable to walk… although that seemed unimportant, so pleased was I to be able to see and talk with my family.
At the same time one of the dreams I’d had earlier in my illness returned. In it I was dossing down in the bar of a smart West End hotel (they didn’t seem to mind) when a stranger approached me and said: ‘I know who you are. You’re Ray Connolly, and you’ve been very, very poorly. What you don’t know is that you’re still very poorly.’
The true nature of my illness was finally getting through to me, but already I was being encouraged by the physios to walk a few paces with a Zimmer frame. By August I was moved from the intensive care unit (having set a record, I was told, of over 100 days there) and PUT IN a more general ward.
I was almost ready to go home, I thought. But then came another setback when, having been transferred to a rehab clinic, I began to vomit blood…lots of it, like a Quentin Tarantino film. Hastily I was rushed back to hospital for more tests. Did Covid have one final unkind trick to play on me, I wondered as I waited for the results.
Apparently, not. No reason could be found for the blood and after another week I was re-released to the gentle arms of rehab for a final three weeks internment before the transport came to take me home.
And, suddenly, two weeks ago, with the aid of a crutch, I walked back into my house to ‘Welcome Home’ balloons in the hall, and was amazed to find the redecorating that I’d done and then forgotten about when I’d been so summarily taken away.
Weighing more than a stone lighter, and with my hair thinner, it was an emotional homecoming, not least because of a secret Plum had kept from me while I’d been away. When my life had been hanging by a thread in May, a very close friend of hers had died from the same disease. Nothing is fair in life and death.
So here I am, carefully re-negotiating the three flights of stairs that until last April I would daily run up and down, and reading the news about Covid deniers and university students who are rebelling against the government’s lockdown restrictions on their social lives.
And all I can think of is those wonderful doctors and nurses and ambulance drivers in the NHS who sometimes, at risk to themselves, nursed me and thousands of others this year, making it possible for us to have a life at all.
All of them are people who will uncomplainingly take care of those protestors, should any of them, unfortunately, become infected after enjoying their ‘freedom’ to have a night out with
As for Donald Trump’s assertion this week that we should not be afraid of Covid, the families of the million people around the world who have died of the disease, more than two hundred thousand in the United States and over forty two thousand in the United Kingdom, would disagree. As would I.