It was Friday March 20, and my husband John and I were on our way home from a long overseas work and holiday trip, and Australia was closing its borders. The entry ban took effect from that day, with exemptions only for Australian citizens and permanent residents. This was the first of many surreal, unprecedented moments to come for us.
We safely arrived home to Brisbane on Sunday March 22. Although neither one of us was unwell, we’d heard enough about the hotspots throughout Europe, and the risks, and had already taken the precaution of asking our adult children to move out of the house and isolate from us. I kept the dog though, and just as well I did…
The recollections I have are day-by-day; as that’s how rapidly things changed. The next day, Monday, John started to feel lethargic, and generally a bit unwell. He is typically in very good health. A cough and the chills soon developed. A day later, we were reading more about returned travellers becoming ill and grew concerned. We visited our GP who quickly recommended a COVID-19 test. John drove himself to the Toowong testing centre in Brisbane.
24 hours later we had the results – John had tested positive for Coronavirus. We further isolated John in the house. He was only leaving the room to use a separate bathroom. Two days later, John started losing interest in food. I was becoming worried, but he kept reassuring me that he was feeling ‘OK.’ Another day passed, and he was looking so much worse.
I was now very concerned and rang the GP for help. John was never short of breath, but his breathing patterns had changed. By March 30, a week after our return home, John’s condition was definitely deteriorating; he had hypoxia (an absence of enough oxygen in tissues to sustain bodily functions) and urgently needed a proper assessment. I called an ambulance.
John was assessed in the infectious disease ward at the Princess Alexandra Hospital (PAH) and was declared too sick for them, and sent straight to the ICU and ventilated. From then on in, it truly was just taking each day as it came.
It was a lonely and absolutely terrifying time. Worldwide, the virus seemed to be taking hold, and no one knew what was ahead for Australia, and we didn’t know what was going to happen with John’s condition. He deteriorated so rapidly at home, it was hard to believe he was now in ICU, on a ventilator, fighting for each breath. I myself was in isolation for four weeks in case I caught the virus from John. Even if I was allowed to leave the house during that time, no one was allowed to visit COVID-19 patients in hospital. I reassured myself that even though we had
no idea what was going on, that John was in the best possible place and receiving the best possible care. The hospital staff kept us informed as best they could.
It was a month of horrendous angst for our family about whether or not John would pull through. We heard shocking stories from overseas of patients being taken off ventilators too soon, or not receiving access to one at all, just left to die. Stories of doctors having to choose who survived and who did not.
After 29 endless days fighting for his life on a ventilator, on April 28, John was extubated, meaning the ICU doctors removed the tube that was allowing him to breathe. I was told later that 29 days was twice as long as he would have been ventilated had he been overseas.
The withdrawal from ICU drugs was nightmarish. John wasn’t himself, he was agitated, hallucinating and suffering painful headaches and just generally feeling really awful.
This of course was hard for me as it was like he had a complete personality change. They moved him out of ICU into the infectious diseases ward, where he started rehabilitation. Thankfully, we were now allowed to visit him, although it was an exceedingly frustrating time for him, and hard for us to watch. John stayed in hospital for another two weeks, and after taking multiple swab tests, was finally declared ‘clear’ of Coronavirus. He was discharged from hospital on May 8, and was home for his first good night’s sleep.
Today, another month forward in early June, he is slowly doing much better. Most of the lingering repercussions of unsteadiness, weakness, poor appetite, loss of weight, and temperature dysregulation are resolving themselves over time.
Under the care of a physio and occupational therapist from the PAH, he is now doing some exercises, some walking, and his appetite and sense of taste is improving too.
He is hoping to be back at work by November this year, all going well.
In my opinion, it is extremely important that the work of the QIMR Berghofer and other institutes in researching drug treatments continues. The way I see it, Coronavirus may never be totally eradicated, and while we may have a decline in Australia, take a look at the rest of the world…
John never really knew how sick he was, and I’m grateful for that. His last memory at home was March 26, just before he deteriorated. If I’d waited one more day to call the ambulance, it would have been too late. I would have lost him.
Medical research and talented nurses and doctors is the reason John is with us today. Many around the world have not been so lucky. I hate to think what the ICU could have been like had Australia been overrun with emergency cases like other countries, and John couldn’t have received the
emergency attention he desperately needed. That’s why continued research into drug treatments is so important.
I wouldn’t wish this journey, that we are still taking, on anyone.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy