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Three Northern Ireland Covid-19 survivors and their journey to recovery


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Tales of survival: Jimmy Fox, back home in Carrickmore after recovering from the coronavirus (Picture: Jude Browne/Ulster Herald)

Tales of survival: Jimmy Fox, back home in Carrickmore after recovering from the coronavirus (Picture: Jude Browne/Ulster Herald)

Paul Keenan arrives home from hospital with wife May

Paul Keenan arrives home from hospital with wife May

Dr Brendan O’Hare

Dr Brendan O’Hare

Happy family: Paul Keenan and wife May with their grandchildren before lockdown

Happy family: Paul Keenan and wife May with their grandchildren before lockdown

Lucky: Dr Brendan O’Hare with wife Aileen and their daughter Niamh

Lucky: Dr Brendan O’Hare with wife Aileen and their daughter Niamh

Tales of survival: Jimmy Fox, back home in Carrickmore after recovering from the coronavirus (Picture: Jude Browne/Ulster Herald)

Leona O'Neill talks to three people who contracted the virus about their long road back to full health.

Two grandfathers have paid tribute to the "heroes, angels and saints" who helped save their lives at Northern Ireland hospitals after they contracted coronavirus.

Paul Keenan, from Londonderry, and Jimmy Fox, from Tyrone, are now back at home with their families after a gruelling few weeks fighting Covid-19.

Father-of-two Paul (65), a type two diabetic, who lives in the Hatmore area of Derry with his wife, May, was in Altnagelvin Hospital for 16 days.

He says he was so sick he felt like he was going to die, but that his family and hospital staff helped rally his spirits and gave him the strength to fight back.

"Looking back now, I didn't have the symptoms that they were telling people to look out for," says Paul. "It started in the last week in March. I didn't have a high temperature, I was just feeling extremely tired and had more flu-like symptoms. It was just getting steadily worse and my wife was the same. We just went to bed and tried to shake it. My wife got better and I didn't.

"My doctor told me to take paracetamol, keep an eye on it and call back if I got worse. As the days went on, the flu-like symptoms were getting far worse. I had no energy or strength and I was so weak. I had a severe headache that had lasted for days.

There was one particular night that I didn't think I was going to make it, I was so bad. I had just a complete feeling of helplessness as this bug took its toll. I just got scared Paul Keenan

"I contacted the doctor again and she sent me to the Covid assessment centre at Altnagelvin. When I got there, I hadn't the strength to put the mask on that they provided and they had to wheel me in to see the doctor. They admitted me to hospital straight away. The rest was just a blur."

He adds: "I remember the doctor speaking to me and saying that she was going to be up-front with me. She looked me straight in the eye and told me I was very ill, but that if I worked with them and did what they asked, they would get me out of this.

"I was in hospital for 16 days. They gave me antibiotics and oxygen. I had three types of oxygen therapy - one that goes up your nose, a mask with a bag and a CPAP machine, which clips over your head.

"They thought that I was going to have to go into intensive care for a time. The ICU doctor came over and said that she didn't think I was quite ready for intensive care just yet and that they would give it a little while longer.

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Paul Keenan arrives home from hospital with wife May

Paul Keenan arrives home from hospital with wife May

Paul Keenan arrives home from hospital with wife May

"The doctor called my wife and told her that, if they could keep me out of ICU, it would be better for me. Thankfully, I didn't have to go there."

Paul says that, at his lowest ebb, he didn't think he would make it. He says talking to a hospital porter, who came into his room and talked about "ordinary things", helped him fight on.

"There was one particular night that I didn't think I was going to make it, I was so bad. I had just a complete feeling of helplessness as this bug took its toll. I just got scared.

"The nurses come in with all their gear on them and the doctors keep sticking things in your arm to draw blood to do all these tests and you're just so, so sick. It was a very humbling experience.

"I was there for 16 days away from my family. It was extremely lonely. Your spirits would go down and you'd get a bit depressed. But the doctor had spoken to my wife and said that they needed to keep my spirits up so I could fight.

"One of the stand-out conversations I had was with a cleaner that ended up spending a fair bit of time talking about everyday stuff. Things like that really lifted my spirits and helped me continue to fight.

"I couldn't see his face, because he had all the gear on, but he talked to me about ordinary things and it was refreshing. I felt really good after talking to him.

"People like that cleaner never seem to get enough recognition, or appreciation, for the work that they do, in this case just spending a few minutes with someone and bringing them a bit of normality in a really difficult situation."

Paul says he started to feel better after a week in hospital, slowly regaining his strength to the point where he was eventually allowed to go home.

"Seven or eight days into my hospital stay, I started to feel a little better. They gave me an oxygen cylinder, so I could walk by myself to the bathroom. Once I started to get on my feet and do my breathing exercises to get my lungs to heal, I started to feel better. The doctors did X-rays and blood tests and allowed me to go home."

Something like this scares you. It changes your perspective on life. I think about things differently. I don't sweat the small stuff anymore and will appreciate everyday things around me and my family Paul Keenan

He adds: "I am gradually getting better. I'm feeling stronger every day. If I walk about, or do a bit of gardening, I get a bit breathless. They told me that my lungs were in a bit of a state, but the oxygen treatment got me through it.

"They told me that it would be quite a while before I am healed. They told me not to be using stairs for a while, because my oxygen levels would drop, so I am sleeping downstairs. I am just glad to be home and I can see my grandchildren through the window. Something like this scares you. It changes your perspective on life. I think about things differently. I don't sweat the small stuff anymore and will appreciate everyday things around me and my family. I'm not going to be as frantic about things and just try and take it easy."

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Happy family: Paul Keenan and wife May with their grandchildren before lockdown

Happy family: Paul Keenan and wife May with their grandchildren before lockdown

Happy family: Paul Keenan and wife May with their grandchildren before lockdown

Paul says he will never be able to thank the hospital staff enought at Altnagelvin who saved his life.

"The people who looked after me in Altnagelvin Hospital were angels, heroes and saints. They were absolutely first-class. They were from all over Ireland, north and south, and from all over the world.

"They were amazing. I will forever be indebted to them."

Funeral director Jimmy Fox spent two weeks in the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen. The Carrickmore widower, who has five grown-up children and 19 grandchildren, says he didn't realise he was as sick as he was.

"I went to the doctor for a check-up just after Easter and she sent me on to Enniskillen hospital to get checked out," says Jimmy (71).

"I didn't realise that I had coronavirus. I had a bad cough, I had lost my sense of taste and smell and was very sleepy. But, apart from that, I wasn't feeling too bad.

"In the hospital, they looked at me and took a swab. The next day they told me I had coronavirus and that they would be keeping me for 14 days, but that I would be okay.

"They gave me oxygen straight away and antibiotics when I arrived and I spent three days in intensive care. I had pneumonia. They were planning to put me on the ventilator, but thankfully I didn't get that far down. They had me on a CPAC machine for a while, but I snapped out of it before I needed the ventilator."

He adds: "I was the first patient in there with coronavirus and the first patient out. I genuinely didn't realise that I was so sick, or that I could have died.

It's amazing, some of the things you can do without. There are lots of things that we don't really need. We are living in changing times Jimmy Fox

"The doctors and nurses were so good and took such good care of me. I just did what they said and took whatever they gave me. People say that I am very easy-going and I think that stood to me. I didn't make a big fuss about it.

"I didn't know how sick I really was. Outside, my family were praying away for me to pull through. They thought I was going to die. But I didn't die, thankfully."

Jimmy says that he was "over the moon" when the doctors allowed him to go home.

"My family were delighted to see me coming home. There was a big fuss made and people called me a hero. My family have looked after me so well.

"I am so thankful to all the medical people who looked after me in the hospital. They were excellent. It's just a pity that I couldn't see them, all I could see was their eyes. That was quite scary, too, not being able to see people's faces. But they are absolute heroes.

"Going through something like that changed my perspective on life. It makes an awful difference.

"It's amazing, some of the things you can do without. There are lots of things that we don't really need. We are living in changing times. We don't know what will happen when the lockdown is lifted. It will be interesting to see."

'I'm no hero... but the public support is very humbling'

A doctor working at Antrim Area Hospital, who battled coronavirus before returning to the frontline, has said he feels we are "nowhere near" the end of the crisis and that people have to stick to the lockdown to save lives.

A&E doctor Brendan O'Hare (31) fell ill with coronavirus at the start of April, as did a number of his colleagues. He battled the illness for two weeks before donning his scrubs again and rejoining the fight against the virus.

"I was working night shifts in A&E at the start of April and, all of a sudden, I felt ill," says Brendan. "I checked my temperature and it was up. The hospital were very good, they swabbed me immediately and sent me home.

"At the start, I just had a temperature and felt weak. Then I got muscle aches and a really sore throat. I never really had a cough, or shortness of breath. After about five or six days, I started getting headaches and then I lost my sense of taste and smell for about a week.

"I started to feel a bit better, but I was just really, really tired. So, all in all, it was nearly two weeks before I was completely back to normal."

Brendan lives in south Belfast with his wife Aileen, who is also a doctor, and their daughter Niamh. The couple are expecting their second baby in six weeks' time.

It is hard not to get caught up in the hype and everything on Facebook about coronavirus and maybe feel afraid, but I just tried to keep my sensible head on - there was no point in panicking Brendan O'Hare

"I was lucky in that Aileen is a GP and she has an oxygen-level monitor at home. I just kept checking that and it was fine, so I didn't have to go to hospital," he says.

"Aileen had actually moved to her sister's house, because she is heavily pregnant and we didn't want her catching anything from me. She is 34 weeks pregnant now. So, I was at home looking after myself for two weeks.

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Dr Brendan O’Hare

Dr Brendan O’Hare

Dr Brendan O’Hare

"It is hard not to get caught up in the hype and everything on Facebook about coronavirus and maybe feel afraid, but I just tried to keep my sensible head on - there was no point in panicking.

"I knew that if I had to go to hospital, I would know when I had to go. I had loads of people from work and family ringing me constantly, also, which was good. They all kept a good eye on me."

Brendan says that he and his colleagues had all the PPE they needed and isn't entirely sure how he picked up the bug.

"Before I got sick, I was dealing with people with Covid-19. I think I might have picked up the virus there, but it's hard to know for sure. I had seen maybe 10 patients with the virus. There were a few of us in work who all took sick at the same time. We had all the proper PPE and all the stuff we are supposed to have. I think it was just bad luck.

"I feel 100% well now and I got over it in around three weeks."

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Lucky: Dr Brendan O’Hare with wife Aileen and their daughter Niamh

Lucky: Dr Brendan O’Hare with wife Aileen and their daughter Niamh

Lucky: Dr Brendan O’Hare with wife Aileen and their daughter Niamh

Brendan says that he is worried that people suffering from non-Covid-related illness are staying away from hospitals and also warned that we are just "in the middle" of the coronavirus crisis and that "Northern Ireland hasn't reached its peak yet".

"We are seeing more sick patients coming in with it. I have seen some really sick people with Covid. I think our peak is, maybe, a bit behind England and that's why we are seeing sicker patients.

"We have also had people who have had heart attacks who were maybe scared to come to A&E, because of Covid, and they are presenting as more sick than if we had been able to treat them sooner.

"I would say to people out there that we are taking every precaution to make it as safe as we can for patients. If they have no virus symptoms, they can go to our non-Covid side of the A&E. Other illnesses are still every bit as prevalent as they always were and we are worried about the patients at home who are having heart attacks and strokes and not coming in to hospital to get the help that they need.

I'm no hero. It's my job and we are lucky to be working at the moment. The public have been so supportive. We have had loads of people dropping in food and presents. It's very humbling Brendan O'Hare

"I don't think we are over the coronavirus crisis. I think we are just in the middle of it. The worry is that it is hard to keep social distancing going on, especially in the good weather. Everyone wants to go out and see their friends.

"But it seems to be working. We probably haven't had the numbers that we expected to have in Northern Ireland and we think that is due to people doing so well with social distancing. We just have to keep that up.

"It's definitely too early to say that we are getting over it. We have a long road ahead of us."

Despite being hailed as heroes, Brendan says medical professionals are "just doing their job".

"I'm no hero. It's my job and we are lucky to be working at the moment. The public have been so supportive. We have had loads of people dropping in food and presents. It's very humbling.

"It is certainly a more frightening time for medical professionals. Everyone is worried about bringing Covid back to their loved ones and someone else getting sick. We just have to take every precaution.

"Everyone showers at work and gets changed before going home. We just have to be as sensible as we can and get through it."

Belfast Telegraph