It’s time once again for the annual end-of-year musings we like to call Shadows and Reflections. Today Dan Richards looks back over the past 12 months.
In June, I caught Covid. Things were just opening up, my mother had travelled up to visit us in Edinburgh, we’d been out for wine and the like — masked when we were asked to mask, unmasked outside and when sitting down…You know, the whole thing had been going on for over a year by that point but we’d been careful to comply with safety measures. My partner’s family actually thought we were mad for taking it so far — windows open for Christmas dinner and all of that — but we didn’t want to catch it and, worse, pass it on to somebody else.
So, my mother came up — she was double vaccinated by that point and excited to be out of Bath; if you’ve met Annie, my mother, you’ll know she’s a delight. It was a wonderful week. Then, on the last night before she was due to travel back south, she announced that she wasn’t going to join us for drinks with friends: ‘I’m tired’, she said. ‘And I get so little time to myself, and you’ve both been so kind to entertain me these past few days, honestly I’d love a night in with my book.’ And she wasn’t for swaying on this, despite my vaguely passive aggressive suggestion — weaponised passive aggression which, of course bounces off her because she taught me how to do it — that they’d have made an effort…No no, she was happy where she was. So we went the half mile to their flat, me chuntering, Anna quietly impressed with Annie’s iron will. Yes, we’d both clocked the Austen-esque double edge of ‘You’ve both been so kind to entertain me these past few days… ’
Next day I put Annie on a train and went to get my first vaccine shot. It didn’t hurt but I’m not a fan of needles so it wasn’t brilliant fun. I was nervous in the queue but, just like writing, I was delighted when it was over and rewarded myself with a coffee. In the days that followed, I felt a bit ropey. Normal. ‘What a good metabolism you have’, medical friends noted. ‘Well done you.’ Well done me, I thought, feeling ropier by the hour.
Now things begin to get slightly vague. Our friends texted to say they’d tested positive — had we given it to them? Oh no! Had they given it to us!? Oh no! — either way, we felt terrible, so we walked up to the Usher Hall for a Covid test and the results came back, yes, well done you. I remember that walk being hard work. Edinburgh is hilly but I don’t generally sweat and zag so whilst climbing them. The test itself was horrid — perhaps it was the first one I did? Funny to think it was a new experience then, only six months ago. ‘Back of the throat but not the tongue? Right…Oh, it’s not nice it is!?’ *sounds of sad gagging*
After that, I lay on the sofa for several days. At night I didn’t sleep. Yes, it was like flu…but flu+ and not in a good way. Apparently I shut down and became monosyllabic. I’ve no memory of that. I remember being tired and sad but not terribly worried. I was young, I’d been told. Covid wouldn’t be nice but it would pass. On the sixth or seventh day, Anna began to rally and feel much better. Perhaps I was a day behind? I ate a bit of cereal, some prunes, a pot of yoghurt…I wasn’t really there.
On the eighth day my blood oxygen read 85 and we phoned an ambulance. Without the pulse oximeter — a bit of kit like a clothes-peg which sits on your finger and measures the proportion of oxygenated haemoglobin in the blood — I’d likely not have woken up on the ninth day. 85 is deathly. A normal reading is typically between 95 and 100%. Whilst it’s not uncommon for people with severe COPD, lifetime smokers, to maintain a pulse ox level between 88 and 92%, I don’t have COPD. I had no underlying conditions at all. But I did have a resting heartbeat of 140. The normal resting heart rate for adults ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute. The lower the rate, the more efficient one’s heart function, the better cardiovascular fitness — for example, top athletes might have a normal resting heart rate closer to 40. I was 140, lying down. My neck was apparently trembling with the thump of my carotid arteries, my heart trying to pump what little oxygen I had as fast as possible. I should have been panicked, in respiratory distress, but I wasn’t. I was happy hypoxic whereby, despite my crazy-low oxygen saturation, I appeared clinically well — as confusing for patient and ambulance crew alike. In the way hypothermic people have been known to take their clothes off and roll around in the snow, my brain was leaning in to the lack: this is fine, this is fine, you’re fine. ‘You were dying’, an A&E doctor told me later that night. ‘We caught you just in time.’
The ambulance arrived a couple of hours after it was called, having driven up from the Scottish Borders, all Edinburgh’s crews being employed with revellers on the Meadows. Three paramedics in hazmat suits padding around the living room. I was asked questions which I did my best to answer but I felt very old. I remember saying, ‘Gosh, there are a lot of you’ and looking to Anna for help. They checked my blood readings and immediately hooked me up to oxygen. An overnight bag appeared. I was taken away. As they helped me down the central stairs I started to cry. Anna told me later that, as soon as the door closed behind me, she likewise collapsed.
The ambulance drove quickly with the lights on but without a siren. I remember being annoyed about this because I’m actually 12 and wanted all the bells and whistles. At Edinburgh Royal Infirmary I was put into a wheelchair, oxygen in tow, and rushed through to a bare room apart from the rest. And there I waited. It was midnight by this point and I was tired, hopeful I’d be put to bed soon.
A nurse arrived. Chatty. Upbeat. She was going to do a PCR test. I shouldn’t worry. ‘Here we go. Well done.’
I’d not had a PCR test performed by someone else before. I was unaware that the process was modelled on the way the Ancient Egyptians extracted the brains of their ancestors. I let it happen, tried to help, apologised, sneezed the place down. The poor lady. Then I thanked her effusively, mainly for leaving. Then I waited for the next thing. A bed was wheeled in and I was helped up into it.
A doctor now. Friendly. Positive. Well briefed. Hello Mr. Richards, I hear you’re a writer. He needed bloods from here (the crook of my right arm) and here (right wrist) and he was going to slip a cannula in here (back of left hand). Can we avoid all that? I asked him rather desperately, I’m really rather afraid of all this. Panicked by needles. He had the tourniquet on me, blue latex, a bit of glove? I stared at it, transfixed, willing a flight into the third person. He complimented me on my excellent veins.
Should this happen to you, should you be in a place of great care but no comfort, a rhetorical world where, foggy but still mindful that people are saving your life but it’s terrifying and your body isn’t working as it should: sob into the wall. Oldest trick in the book. Cry it out and away. Eventually it stops and then you’ve got an exciting drip to gaze through dispassionately, tubes to disassociate from. A name band which appeared somewhere along the line. Off for a chest X-ray. More bloods? I might have imagined that.
At 4AM I was moved to a ward. I was the only one there. The nurses were incredibly kind. After the glare of A&E it was wonderfully dark and quiet. I tried to sleep.
The next day passed. I had injections of anticoagulant into my stomach. They tested my blood oxygen levels, my blood pressure, and pricked blood from my fingertips to test for glucose every few hours. I was started on a course of steroids for my lungs. Towards the end of the afternoon a Critical Care doctor came to see me. He drew the curtains around my bed even though we were alone and asked me how I felt. I said I felt okay but understood that I was ill. Yes, he said, you’ve got a bad case. He was concerned that wasn’t responding to the treatment. My blood oxygen was still very low. How would I feel about being intubated?
I told him that I found the prospect worrying. Okay, he said, well, try to breathe as deeply as you can overnight. He’d come back and see where things stood in the morning. Did I have any questions or concerns?
I remember trying to be as calm and clear as I could. I told him that I was worried about dying, because I knew that I really wasn’t well. Specifically, I was worried about dying alone.
‘I won’t be able to see my partner or my family again, will I’, I asked him. There was no question mark because I knew the answer. ‘It sounds like I’m going downhill fast…Anna’s not allowed to visit. My parents are in Bath…There won’t be any time.’
No, he said. He said it kindly and quietly. It would have been far worse for him to lie and I would have known that he was lying — there would have been no comfort in it.
And then I thanked him, as I always found myself thanking the people trying to help me. And he went away and telephoned my mother and told her to sleep with her phone beside her in case they needed to take me down to the Critical Care Unit during the night. ‘If we need to intubate, you can say goodbye’ were apparently his words.
I did not sleep. I think I probably hyperventilated until I saw him next morning, when things had improved a little and I avoided the CCU by the skin of my teeth. And then I began to rally, slowly, day on day. Horatio Clare has written in Heavy Light about the comfort he took in the slant glimpses of nature afforded during his time in the secure psychiatric ward; the birds which crossed the high windows, the trees glimpsed from the yard. I don’t remember that. Perhaps it happened. The windows seemed like light-boxes, empty glowing squares. At some point I began listening to The King of Limbs on repeat, the From The Basement version, unexpected but very welcome on my phone — an album infused with sounds from the natural world, birdsong, soft echoes, swimming songs. After ‘Give Up The Ghost’, Thom Yorke asks the room ‘Please tell me that sounded alright…’ — a huge looping comfort. A safe space. I don’t know where the headphones came from.
At some point a doctor friend found me on the ward and waved through the glass, gave me a double thumbs up. ‘You were grey’ she told me later. ‘I told Anna you were being given the best care. I didn’t mention how you looked.’
An MRI scan to check for blood clots in my lungs. Dyes pushed through the cannula. Whirring noises. A chipper hospital porter who reminded me of the caretakers back at art school. He called me ‘son’. There were no clots — had there been clots there was some talk about ‘flushing my system’. I never asked what that would entail.
And behind it all, the image of the flat door closing behind me, seen from Anna’s point of view, and the awareness of the cannula sitting in my hand. Those were my dreams, when I slept — four to six hours at a time before the little trolley arrived beside my bed and the tests. I remember watching the dawn break several mornings. The blues flaming red.
At some point I began texting people, rejoined the world. On day eight I walked out. I’m boggled when I think about it now. Thank you, NHS.
Longer term, I have night terrors and I’m muzzy, forgetful. I get emotional and teary at the slightest thing. I’m trying to look after Anna, who has horrible long Covid, and care for the houseplants, write to friends, stay in touch. Trying to be kind. Trying to connect.
Having said that, I’m writing this in an isolated bothy, fern frost on the windows, having decided to get away and put this down. I’ve been avoiding it. Maybe that’s natural. Of course, the big ‘who cares?’ hovers over everything here — bit sick of Covid to be honest, mate — but, if nothing else, get yourself an oximeter. They’re £10. Mine saved my life.
So that’s good. And Anna’s on the mend, we think. Our friends are recovering. My mother skipped the initial show but was told her son might die in the night so, you know, swings and roundabouts. And it’s all grand stuff for the new book which is about overnight things and coming together slowly — ‘Bad in life is good in a book’ has become a bit of a maxim these past few years but I realise I shouldn’t push that too far.