‘I used hospital gown to stifle my screams as man died from Covid next to me’
Covid-19 has devastated lives and livelihoods across the world since early last year.
For some lucky enough to survive being hospitalised, it’s dramatically affected how they view the future.
Here the Daily Star Sunday’s Phil Burkett recounts his experience fighting the virus and how it has changed his outlook forever.
Just after Christmas, on Monday, December 28, I started showing the full symptoms of Covid-19.
By the Wednesday I’d received and returned my home testing kit, with the result coming back “positive” on January 2.
For the next four days, my health deteriorated rapidly – no appetite, sense of smell nor taste, along with a raging 38/39C temperature.
On January 7 things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Walking to the bathroom I could hardly breathe, even just trying to take a few steps.
It was then that I took the wrong decision – NOT to go to hospital immediately.
Later that day my partner Sally spoke to doctors on the NHS 111 Covid-19 helpline. Thank God she did. They asked her to pass me the phone and, within 30 seconds, they’d heard enough to send an ambulance to me.
Minutes later paramedics had arrived, taken my blood pressure, temperature and blood oxygen levels, deciding we had to get to hospital “right now”.
With hospitals filling fast with Covid patients in early January, that was easier said than done. We waited one or two minutes as the paramedics called to find somewhere with a free bed.
Then we were off to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich, south-east London, to my destination – the resuscitation ward.
Soon after arrival I had a chest x-ray and ECG, and they pumped me full of antibiotics and steroids and 15 litres of oxygen.
Due to me delaying seeking help, be it from stupidity or pride, I was in big trouble. For the first time in my 58 years, in “resus” with two brilliant doctors standing in front of me and looking at me, monitoring my condition, I had to face my mortality head on. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to do something – anything – to fight back, to battle and live’.
So, I started cursing myself – telling myself I had to “man up”! I was bigger and stronger than this cowardly “bottle job” virus.
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It was ridiculous, I know. Luckily those NHS heroes stabilised my condition and at 4am the next morning I was moved from resus to the Covid ward, suffering double pneumonia.
It wasn’t over. I was there for 10 days, trying to lower my assisted oxygen levels and build up lung strength to breathe by myself. The early days seemed to merge into one, separated by seeing daylight turn to darkness. Every few hours I had tests for blood pressure, oxygen and temperature, plus a regular needle to the tummy to stop clotting.
All this was done while wearing an oxygen mask for 24 hours, with the medics gradually reducing my additional oxygen intake downwards.
January 10 was a tough day. When I’d arrived on the ward there was a wonderful elderly couple, both Covid sufferers, lying next to each other.
The elderly gentleman was quite ill but his lovely wife would reassure him she was there, right next to him when he called out to her during lucid moments.
Around 7pm I heard the lady say: “Oh no.” Then: “No, no…?”
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I had the screens drawn around my bed so couldn’t see what had happened and I thought she may have spilt something, but within a split second a wave of emotion in the words, “please, please no” and the calling of the gentleman’s name.
All I could do was press my help button that she had done, too.
Within a few seconds hospital staff were there. The elderly gentleman had quietly slipped away. The pain in each of this poor lady’s sobs was ripping my heart out, I was useless to her…
It felt like I had this huge jagged rock stuck at the back of my throat that I wanted to scream out of me. I didn’t know what to do, so I stuffed my mouth with the bottom on my hospital gown and bit down hard and stifled a scream hopefully muffling my stupid sound.
The lady was inconsolable so I stuck my fingers in my ears covered my head with the bed cover and sobbed with her.
I was released from hospital on the evening of January 15 after my oxygen levels no longer required assistance. As quickly as I had entered, I was leaving.
I had a plastic bag containing a week of steroids and a wad of hospital notes charting how the team had saved me.
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My son, Ollie, came and collected me. I gave him the thumbs-up, as I knew if I opened my mouth to speak I would have crumbled into a sobbing mess.
It had started to rain as we got to the car and I asked for a minute just to feel the rain on my face… absolute heaven. Ten minutes later I was back home, where my Covid experience had begun two weeks before. Within seconds I was gesturing a big family hug and a proper cry.
Right now I feel fragile and tired. Mentally I’m exhausted. I still get short of breath and light-headed when walking indoors.
I’m forever indebted to the NHS heroes who saved me. But the experience has changed me. I’m now moving on with this fantastic positive attitude. My health and family will be paramount. No longer materialistic.
Sunshine, rain, snow on my face. It’s all completely free. I’ve been given a second chance. To quote Simon and Garfunkel’s 59th Street Bridge Song: Life, I love you, all is groovy.
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