A FORTNIGHT ago, Dr Helen Kara returned from a week teaching and speaking at universities in Southampton and Norway. When she arrived home on March 13, she decided to self-isolate, aware that although it was unlikely she had picked up coronavirus Covid-19, she had travelled through many crowded places, including airports, train stations, tube trains and taxis as well as staying in hotels and eating in restaurants. As an asthma-sufferer, Helen took the decision to isolate herself as much as possible from family and friends, even though at that point, there was no official requirement for her to do so. She said: “I took all the precautions I could; my hands have never been so clean. “But I wouldn’t know for sure whether I had caught the virus for at least 14 days, maybe longer – and if I had caught it, then during those days I could infect tens or hundreds or even thousands of other people.” The day after she came home, Helen shared her thoughts and fears in her blog helenkara.com, reflecting on her longing to see a friend’s new baby and the restrictions she was placing on herself after researching coronavirus as much as she could. But just a couple of days into her self-imposed isolation, Helen realised that not everyone was as aware of the potential effects of the virus. And before the Government instructed the nation to stay at home, her parents, who are 79 and 80, enjoyed a visit from a friend. Now Helen is sharing their story - a stark illustration of the difficulties faced by so many as we remain in our homes, unable to care for our loved ones far away, fearful of the many ways this virus can enter our homes and impact on our lives:
During my first week of self-isolation, my 80-year-old mother, 120 miles away in Cumbria, caught a cold and cough from a friend who had visited for lunch. On the fourth day she emailed me, saying, ‘I’ve never got rid of a cough so fast!’ That set alarm bells ringing. I had read several stories of individual experiences of COVID-19 outlining how symptoms come, and go, and come again. Also by this time my 79-year-old father also had ‘the lurgy’; it started three days after my mother’s. Her email said how good it was they weren’t both ill at once.
But her symptoms did return, along with loss of appetite. Three days later she collapsed and my father called the paramedics. They came – no suits or masks – and diagnosed an infection, told her sternly to eat and drink enough, and to rest and take paracetamol. They had a few in the house, so my father added some paracetamol to their next supermarket delivery, but none arrived.
My parents are very healthy people. My father takes no medication and has never spent a night in hospital. My mother doesn’t quite have his track record but she’s not far behind. They are both normal weight, don’t smoke, drink small amounts of alcohol, eat home-cooked food, and exercise regularly. They are not used to being unwell. They didn’t even have a thermometer.
I wouldn’t have described myself as suffering from anxiety. But I know differently now. On that day I was so anxious I couldn’t sit still or sleep. I realise, now, that I have managed my anxiety, for many years, by doing things. Send a card, send flowers, take round a casserole, go and help out. Now I can’t do any of that and, as nature abhors a vacuum, it flooded my being with anxiety instead.
Two days after the paramedics’ visit, my mother developed the short-lived diarrhoea characteristic of COVID-19. This worried her because of the paramedics’ instructions about eating and drinking, so she rang their GP surgery for advice, and received helpful support and reassurance. Later that afternoon she realised a chest infection was developing – she has had several, so recognised the signs – and rang the surgery again. A kind doctor answered, prescribed antibiotics by phone, and said they would be delivered the next day. She also, for the first time, suggested that my parents might have COVID-19. Two hours later the doorbell rang and there was the GP herself with the antibiotics. My mother started taking them straight away.
The next day her breathing got bad: shallow, fast and noisy. She knew this was a symptom of COVID-19 and by the next day it was a little better; just shallow and fast. The following day – day 11 for my mother, day 8 for my father – was the first with no new symptoms. But the day after that I received a crisis call in the morning. “Help us. Please get help,” she gasped. After quickly consulting NHS 111 online, I rang 999. The paramedics arrived shortly after, this time in suits and masks. They checked her over and found that her oxygen levels were 94%, close to the likely maximum for her age of 96-97%. My father is doing better, though it must be hard to watch his beloved wife in such distress and be unable to help much. They are both exhausted and weak with no appetite.
I also received a helpful call from an out-of-hours GP who advised me on how to provide support from a distance. Then I spent the rest of the day trying to arrange some home care or nursing for them. This was difficult for two reasons: first, it was a Sunday, and second, many organisations are not yet geared up to deal with cases of suspected COVID-19. But I did manage to arrange a home care package, of two one-hour visits a day, to start the following Wednesday. My parents have enough savings to cover the cost and it’s essential right now.
By Monday morning my mother was asking for 24-hour care at home because she was struggling to cover the short distance from the bedroom to the toilet in the bathroom next door. Again it wasn’t possible to set this up straight away, but I rang everyone I could think of, including an emergency number set up only that day and social services. One organisation looked promising for 24-hour care, but they had to follow official guidance and there wasn’t any. My parents were their first potential clients with suspected COVID-19. So nothing doing.
In the meantime my mother contacted the GP surgery asking for a catheter and they said they would arrange a commode. I had a short chat with my father at around 4.30 pm, saying I’m sorry, I’ve tried my hardest, but nobody is coming today. He was philosophical and said they would just have to soldier on. Five minutes later I got a call from an occupational therapist who said she’d had two referrals for them, was on her way to visit and help, and wanted a few details. I could have kissed her. She went and was very helpful indeed – I got a text from my mother who described herself as ‘immensely cheered’. However, the OT’s clinical observations indicated a need to refer my mother to paramedics for another assessment of her breathing problems. They found her lung capacity down to 71%, so she’s in hospital now – and they’re not too happy about my father’s breathing… he rang me while they were loading her into the ambulance, and one of the paramedics spoke to me and gave directions for his care from tomorrow. I’ll be ringing the OTs and the GP surgery first thing.
That is all the factual narrative which is easy to write. The hard part is explaining how it feels to know my parents are going through this terrible experience yet I can’t go to help them. I have a car, it’s a couple of hours up the M6 – but I can’t go. They don’t want me to go; they know I have asthma and would be at risk. But I wish, oh how I wish, that I could go and look after them.
We have all had to do a very sudden 180 degree turn, from showing our love through presence, to showing our love through absence. And, as yet, it doesn’t feel like love.
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