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Surviving COVID-19

A personal account by Dr. J Richard Smith on his experience being diagnosed with COVID-19 in London, UK.

by Dr Richard Smith

On the 22 March 2020 I received an email from David Maloney, publisher at Darton, Longman and Todd requesting whether his authors, of which I count it a great honour to be one, could perhaps contribute a piece for the internet during these dark and difficult times. Sadly, for me I was lying in the COVID-19 isolation ward at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, on multiple antibiotics, oxygen and IV fluids. The question was whether I was lying there or dying there? The answer is clear, I have been lucky and I was not dying hence I’m writing this piece.

I write as both a cancer surgeon and scientist. I like so many of us had many plans for this spring, long distance walks peppered with staying in good hotels; all of these of course were swept away by a trip into the genuine wilderness. Just over two weeks ago there was much joking in the operating theatre that we all had dry coughs, then shortness of breath started the following day and then another 24 hours later high temperatures. I stayed at home alone and isolated for six days but instead of my much prayed for deliverance things went from bad to worse and I became confused. A friend picked up on this over the phone and pushed me to go to the hospital, that was lucky, my oxygen levels, as he had surmised were inadequate. Another friend facilitated my admission into hospital.

That morning as I left my home, I wondered if I would ever see it again, but far worse was the isolation of knowing I might never see any of my four children ever again. This is the truly awful aspect of this virus; you die alone with no visitors allowed, no farewells, no touch of the hand, no hugs, just isolation in the desert of an isolation ward. The only people you see wear masks, there are no faces.

Through all of this smell and taste are removed and even worse the rare condition of dysgeusia; what is that? I had never heard of it but it is where things that should taste good are truly awful, enough to make you spit out your food and brush your teeth to get rid of the awful flavour. So, you eat nothing for days on end. This all goes along with wild hallucinations which would go on all night, usually involving some fixed ideation around drowning in ones’ own sweat and secretions; these would feel like dreams, then one would wake up lathered in sweat and breathless only to plunge again and again into the same nightmare.

As a doctor, of course I am also obsessed with statistics. Now the COVID-19 story we all know is 3 percent mortality, not terrible but not great and really bad if you are in the 3 percent. However, this belies some truths; if you are 35 years old and healthy, your chance is less than 0.1 percent, if your sixty you hit 1 percent, but at the point you go to hospital with pneumonia and a bit of adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) it goes up to 5 to 10 percent and if you are on a ventilator over 50 percent. To put that into perspective when we do massive cancer surgery, we never quote death rates above 10 percent. This virus is scary, make no mistakes. It lands you in the wilderness, the worst I have ever experienced; the Lenten experience you don’t want but that is thrust upon one.

In all of this though happily for me came a number of angelic presences in the form of some really caring nurses and doctors, people of great empathy and understanding of the physical and psychological tortures of their patients, all living with the high risk of contracting the virus for themselves. I had started with Augmentin and doxycycline as antibiotics, but after a terrible weekend of clearly making no progress, on the Monday morning a dynamic consultant and his excellent team entered my room. He asked a few questions, examined me and commenced a number of changes, probably most significant was the introduction of intravenous Tazocin. I was also sneakily taking my own “sweeties” in the form of hydroxychloroquine, supplied by a GP friend, now for the record on the Royal Brompton COVID-19 protocol. I received much skilful care from these attendants as well as so many messages of love, support and prayers and friendship from family and friends and thanks to all of this I believe I came to deliverance back to my children and home.

I arrived home half dead but very much alive and improving daily. I have two trips planned for later in the year, one to the Isle of Revelation, Patmos, the other to Palestine. Where, ironically the plan is to venture into the desert where Christ spent his 40 tumultuous days. Fifteen days in the Coronavirus desert proved more than enough for this man.

In the next few months, when we are all allowed to travel again, we all need to get out there and experience life.

I will finish with a quote from the great Greek man of letters George Seferis:

“The day before, a little after midnight, “I was in the Isle which is called Patmos”. As dawn was breaking, I was in Chora. The sea was motionless and like metal bound the islands around. Not even a leaf breathed in the strengthening light. The peace was a shell without the slightest fracture. I remained transfixed by its influence; then I felt I was whispering: “Come and see…” [APBN]

About the Author

Dr Richard Smith trained as a doctor in Glasgow and in London, obtaining his MRCOG in 1988 and graduating with an MD from the University of Glasgow on cervical cancer, immunity and infection in 1992. Thereafter, he worked as lecturer and senior lecturer at Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School. He then became Director of Gynaecology at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and visiting associate professor at NYU Medical Centre in New York. For the last 6 years, he has been based at the West London Gynaecological Cancer Centre, Queen Charlotte’s & Chelsea Hospital, Imperial College London. He has been made an adjunct associate professor at NYU Medical Centre.He is the founder of the UK Uterine Transplantation charity and leader of the research team, a project he has been involved with for the past 15 years.