While most coronavirus patients recover within two weeks, researchers examining the tracing app data have found that as many as one in 10 suffers for three weeks or more — and some experience symptoms for months on end. Here, Linda Stewart talks to three local people still experiencing severe symptoms many weeks after contracting the virus
Mum-of-three Pat Conroy (80), from north Belfast, was in the Mater Hospital for two and a half weeks after being diagnosed with Covid-19. She is still experiencing symptoms long after being released from hospital on Good Friday.
Her daughter, Kate Connolly, says that while Pat is in the “at risk” age category, she was an active and healthy pensioner who enjoyed the independence still being able to drive gave her and had just moved house.
“We’d heard about the outbreak, but it seemed to be something that was happening somewhere else,” Kate says.
“My little boy was off school on St Patrick’s Day, so we popped in to see mum. She had fallen on the stairs, so I was a bit worried. She seemed out of sorts, not herself.”
When Pat’s condition worsened, Kate moved in to look after her. “She had another fall on the stairs and she was delirious, so I phoned an ambulance. But she didn’t have any of the symptoms of a cough and high temperature at that stage.”
Later that day, however, Pat began to develop a temperature. “She steadily got worse until March 25. She collapsed again and I couldn’t move her, so I phoned the ambulance again. They sent a Rapid Response team and she was taken to the Mater Hospital,” says Kate.
“It was very traumatic, because I couldn’t see her, but the staff were unbelievable.”
Kate got a mobile phone for her mum, but says Pat “was out of it for the first week”, so relied on staff providing updates on her condition. At one point, things looked very bleak indeed.
“They told us at one stage that we needed to be prepared for the worst,” recalls Kate. “She wasn’t responding to antibiotics, so they put her on stronger ones and after five days, there was no response.”
Thankfully, Pat’s oxygen levels finally began to improve and she was released on Good Friday and came to stay with Kate.
“She was bedridden for a number of weeks, but I could see a difference in her health every couple of days. However, she would still be very, very tired and everything would take a lot out of her,” Kate says.
“She doesn’t really remember being sick, apart from waking up in the hospital. She doesn’t really remember anything about that week when she was ill at home.”
Now, months after first succumbing to the virus, Kate says Pat is still experiencing symptoms.
“She came out of hospital and stayed with me for five or six weeks and has now been able to go back to her own house. But she has extreme tiredness and some forgetfulness,” she says.
“In the mornings, by the time she’s dressed and downstairs, she would be breathless. She also would be shaky on her feet and a little bit forgetful. But for what she’s been through, she’s come out really, really well.”
Pat herself says it is taking a long time to get back to normal. “You wonder at my age, will I get back to what I know as normal. But I’m very glad to be home now and feeling a bit better.”
Kate Davidson and her husband Kevin James had just moved to New Zealand when the coronavirus pandemic struck. They began experiencing symptoms after returning to live with her dad Lester in Kells.
Kate (35) had just finished a PhD in ecology and the couple had sold their Cardiff home in January and moved to New Zealand after Kevin (37), a database analyst, received a job offer. His post was due to start in April, but the offer was withdrawn after the outbreak, so the couple returned to Northern Ireland on March 31 as their visas were no longer valid.
Almost as soon they arrived home, they began experiencing symptoms.
"I don't know if I got sick on the journey or while we were staying in New Zealand, but on April 1, I had a sore throat. A couple of days after that, the fatigue really hit. It was like having the flu - really extreme fatigue," Kate says.
"I didn't have the continuous cough or the high fever - just really bad fatigue, extreme muscle ache and shortness of breath. I felt like I had asthma and I couldn't get a full breath."
Those severe symptoms lasted for around four days, after which Kate began to feel a little better. "But it never improved after that," she says. "I still have fatigue, muscle aches, shortness of breath and a racing heart. Some days are bad, some days it's better, but it's never got back to normal."
Because Kate's dad is 67, the couple stayed as far away from him as possible for the first two weeks, using separate bathrooms. After that fortnight had passed, they were advised they were no longer contagious.
"That's 11 weeks ago now," says Kate. "Today, I'm having quite a good day. That means that as long as I'm sitting and doing nothing, I feel okay. But I couldn't go for a walk and I couldn't do any exercise - that would really knock me back."
Last week she experienced shortness of breath and a lot of palpitations, and the previous week she suffered from bad fatigue and muscle aches.
"I was taking painkillers just to get to sleep at night because of the muscle aches," Kate explains.
"I have three or four days where I feel really bad and then three or four days when it's not so bad and I feel a bit better.
"If I try and do anything, I come home and have to sit on the sofa for a couple of hours. It really knocks you out."
Both Kate and Kevin have experienced similar symptoms throughout their illness.
"I've read things about people who have ended up getting chronic fatigue syndrome and that is a real worry. I just hope there is an end to it," she says.
"We weren't able to get tested when we first fell ill as they were only testing hospital admissions, but we were able to get tested last week with the throat swab and we were both negative, so at least we can be fairly confident we're not infectious anymore."
Kate applied for a number of jobs while she was recovering from coronavirus and was invited for interviews, but she decided to cancel them because she didn't feel well enough to attend.
"We're living with my dad, but we want to have our own home again. At the moment, we're just sitting here, hoping we get better soon and can then start making plans," she says.
At the start of the outbreak, Kate was worried about older relatives and was not concerned about getting it herself.
The irony of her own lingering ill-health isn't lost on her.
"I can't believe how badly it's hit me - I'm normally active and fit," she admits.
"I did martial arts, keep fit, gardening, walking... now, I can't do any of my hobbies and I can't work.
"Kevin and I are both kung fu black belts and I am also a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Kung fu, in particular, is a huge part of our lives, so we are really worried about when, or if, we will be able to get back to it.
"If people think this is only something for older people to worry about, it's not."
Kate, a member of a Covid UK long haul Facebook group, says there are at least hundreds of people going through the same thing.
"It's a minority, but if you are one of the unlucky ones, it's pretty devastating," she adds.
"I think everybody who has it feels quite isolated, so just to know you are not alone is nice."
Department store supervisor Julianne Smyth (44) was hospitalised with Covid-19 and is still suffering from fatigue weeks after being discharged from Belfast City Hospital.
The 44-year-old, who is married to factory worker Steven (48) and has two children, Mia (14) and Caleb (9), says she has always enjoyed good health, and had never been in hospital, apart from having her children.
The family had quarantined for two weeks after Julianne’s mother-in-law, Elizabeth Smyth (70), was diagnosed with Covid-19. Elizabeth passed away on the same day that Julianne tested positive for Covid-19.
Julianne says she first noticed her own symptoms in the first week of lockdown. “It started like a head cold — sore head, sore throat… my sense of taste and smell had gone, but I didn’t know that was a symptom. We hadn’t heard about that at the time,” she says.
By the end of March, when she took a turn for the worse and was finding it increasingly difficult to breathe, Julianne called the doctor and told him her symptoms.
“He asked me ‘Can you take a breath and count to 20 as fast as you can’ — and I counted to three. He said ‘Pack your bags and go straight to the hospital’.”
After tests confirmed she had Covid-19, Julianne was admitted to hospital and her temperature shot up the following day.
“I started getting worse. My temperature wouldn’t break, the pain in my chest felt like somebody was sitting on top of me. The aches and pains, the banging headache — it felt like the worst hangover of my life — and my breathing started getting worse.”
Julianne was put on a CPAP machine to help her to breathe and remained on it for four or five days. Her symptoms were so severe that at her lowest ebb she wondered whether she would ever be back in her own home again.
“It was the worst time of my life, but I was determined to stick it out. I had a couple of panic attacks and there were days in that hospital when I was thinking ‘This has really kicked my ass, this isn’t going to work, no matter what I do here, I don’t think I’m going to go home’.”
Eventually, Julianne was weaned off the CPAP machine and was able to wear an oxygen mask as her oxygen levels improved. She was still very weak when she was first released from hospital. “Walking upstairs to go to the bathroom was hard, having a shower was hard, washing my hair was hard, trying to homeschool two children was hard,” she says.
She would find herself having to sleep in the afternoon for a few hours, but over the weeks she noticed some improvement.
“I am starting to get a wee bit stronger — the afternoon naps were not as long as they were. I’m able to go for a walk round the neighbourhood,” Julianne says.
She has, however, no doubt about the toll Covid-19 has taken on her health. “I am still struggling to get a breath — I’m still fatigued, still tired. But when I came home from hospital anything would have wiped me out.
“I just pad about the house now, do a little bit of cleaning, make dinners and homeschool to 3-4pm. I’m not going out to run a marathon but I am getting there. I’ve seen a big improvement since coming out of hospital, slowly but surely.”
Julianne, however, has a timely warning for those who assume Covid-19 is only serious if you are elderly or vulnerable.
“I was the youngest person in my ward and also the sickest,” she says. “People think this only happens to older people and I am one of the guilty people who thought that. I thought this wasn’t going to happen to me — I’d never been in the hospital, never smoked and yet it knocked me over like a bus.
“As one of those people who have gone through it, I know that it can happen to anybody. It doesn’t take any prisoners. Nobody can tell you why you get as sick as you do, but I’m getting through it, thank goodness.”