'Hospital staff rang my wife to ask if she wanted to say goodbye' - a paramedic shares his terrifying Covid experience

A frontline paramedic from the East Midlands has shared his terrifying experience of contracting coronavirus, and living with its after effects.

Originally published to the East Midlands Ambulance Service (EMAS) website, Terry Thompson's account shows how quickly a healthy person can become ill with Covid-19 - and hammers home why the virus must be taken seriously.

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Terry Thompson joined EMAS 13 years ago, and for the last 10 years has worked on the frontline as a paramedic based at Kingsmill.

Despite wearing personal protective equipment and following government guidelines, in April, the healthy 46 year old with no pre-existing medical conditions contracted Covid-19.

He said, “I finished my shift at work on Sunday afternoon, then during the early hours of Monday morning I woke up shivering with a temperature of over 40 degrees. The symptoms came on quickly during the day and hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t eat, drink or get out of bed.”

Terry reported he had Covid-19 symptoms to EMAS and a test was booked for the following day.

On the Wednesday, two days after the start of his symptoms, Terry collapsed in his bathroom and his wife, Rebecca, phoned for an ambulance. He was taken to Kingsmill Hospital where more tests were taken, determining Terry was severely dehydrated. He was given fluids and was then sent home.

By the Friday evening, Terry was struggling to breathe. An ambulance crew attended and liaised with the hospital who advised that he stay at home.

“I don’t remember a great deal about the following two days. My wife had been setting her alarm for every hour through the night to make sure I was breathing. As I dozed off to sleep, I’d have periods where my breathing would stop for 15 to 20 seconds," he said.

'Hospital staff rang my wife to ask if she wanted to say goodbye'

During the very early hours of Monday morning, exactly one week after Terry first experienced symptoms, his condition declined rapidly.

“I seemed to drop off a cliff, and remember waking up because an ambulance crew was shaking me. They took me to the hospital’s Resuscitation department where they did a chest X-ray, confirmed pneumonia and sent me to the Covid ward," Terry said.

“I was put on oxygen and a doctor came to take a series of blood tests.

“I was then told I needed to be put on a ventilator. That was the scariest part of this whole experience.

“My wife and family were not allowed to come with me to hospital because it was suspected Covid, so I had to ring my wife to tell her what was happening. Obviously, we both got upset.

“To take me to the Critical Care Unit I had to be put into what I can only describe as a giant, clear plastic bag, because I was classed as highly contagious. It was very, very scary and claustrophobic, and I remember seeing people in the corridors watching as I was moved.

“Before they intubated me, hospital staff rang my wife to ask if she wanted to say goodbye, stating there was only a 40 per cent chance of me coming off the ventilator.

“Rebecca tells me that we did have a conversation on the phone, but I can’t remember because I was so out of it.”

A frightening, isolating experience

Two days later, the hospital tried to take Terry off the ventilator, but he had an adverse reaction due to a large build-up of fluid around the tube, so it was put back on.

The hospital rang Rebecca at regular intervals during the day to keep her posted, and staff kept a diary for Terry so that he and his family could later understand what happened to him.

“I have a vague recollection of the day they took me off the ventilator," Terry remembered.

“I had a feeding tube up my nose and into my stomach, two arterial lines - one in my neck, and one in my wrist, two cannulas and a catheter. I was hooked up to lots of machines so they could constantly monitor my condition.

“It’s scary enough being in critical care, but when I woke up I couldn’t see people’s faces because of their level 3 hoods and protective suits, the lights were very bright, and I could hear a lot of beeping and suction noise - put this together with the drugs I was on, which can make you hallucinate, it’s no wonder I thought they were all wearing space suits, and the hospital staff said I looked very frightened.

“They were worried about my reaction and so increased my sedation, and I remained on the Critical Care Unit until the Friday evening."

The frightening experience didn’t end there. To be taken back to the Covid ward, Terry had to be placed back in a giant, clear plastic bag for the journey back through the hospital.

“It seemed a long way back to the ward, and again was a very claustrophobic experience. I felt awful," he said.

“On the ward I couldn’t stand, and so wasn’t able to go to the toilet, instead they had to use a rotunda transfer aid to help move me safely onto a commode. The following two days I had to use a walking frame to support me.”

“My wife, family and friends hadn’t been able to visit me so I spoke to them from the Covid ward via WhatsApp.”

Long lasting effects of Covid

Terry started to feel a bit better by the third day out of critical care, and by the sixth day managed to persuade the hospital that he was okay to go home.

“There were people on the ward much more poorly than me. One gentleman who had been on the Critical Care Unit had been on a ventilator and still wasn’t able to swallow food, so was on the ward being fed through a nasal tube into his stomach," Terry said.

Despite this traumatic and frightening experience, the paramedic feels he was lucky to survive and make the recovery that he has so far. He returned to work eight weeks later, but the longer lasting effects of coronavirus, have meant he has not yet been able to return to his normal role.

“I felt like a fraud not being at work because I didn’t feel particularly unwell, so came back on a phased return because I still get very tired and breathless, so I couldn’t do effective CPR or carry equipment and kit upstairs," he said.

“A hospital breathing test has shown that my gas exchange isn’t as it should be and I’ve got scarring on my lungs. They don’t know if it’ll get better over time, because no-one knows yet how the virus impacts people in the long-term.”

As is the case with many people who have spent time in critical care, Terry also struggles to sleep.

'Don’t underestimate this virus'

This is Terry’s message to the people who aren’t taking this virus seriously.

“Think about your family," he said.

“My wife had to deal with everything. I cannot imagine how she coped.

“Our son lives with us and he and my wife have since discovered that they have antibodies, meaning they’ve both had Covid-19 but without any symptoms.

“So, you might be the lucky one to have no or mild symptoms, but there is a chance your loved one’s life could be put at risk, or that they don’t make it off the ventilator.

“Covid-19 is still out there and it’s still killing people. The treatments are getting better now but it is the virus that keeps on giving - don’t underestimate how seriously it can impact on you and your family.

“To be told your loved one hasn’t got a good chance of coming off the ventilator and you can’t see him.

"I wouldn’t wish it on anybody."