Why we need to talk about teachers with long Covid

I got Covid eight months ago and am still suffering symptoms – schools need to understand the impact, says Pippa Wilson
5th November 2020, 12:44pm
Pippa Wilson


Why we need to talk about teachers with long Covid

Coronavirus: Schools Need To Understand That Covid-19 Symptoms Can Last For Months, Says This Teacher

"Are you fully recovered yet?" is a question I still don't know how to answer. 

Almost eight months since I first became ill with Covid, some symptoms linger on, such as my joints hurting, the chronic fatigue and the shortness of breath. 

I struggle to eat - if only I could smell and taste food. My upper body strength has gone: even lifting a full kettle or washing basket takes a concentrated effort. Washing my hair causes tremendous pain in my arms. 

Want to know more about Long Covid? Here is an extensive explainer from Tes

I feel like I am being permanently strangled. My heart goes like the clappers when I go up the stairs, and even sometimes when I'm sitting still.

Currently, I can't work. On the plus side, I'm over the rash, cough and lung inflammation…and the stigma.

Coronavirus: When symptoms linger...and linger

My last teaching day was Monday 16 March. During that first week of self-isolation, I sat at home marking, analysing tests and emailing colleagues. I kept getting the chills, but it seemed to be just a cold, then bad conjunctivitis. 

On the Sunday evening, my shivers were uncontrollable. My chest became tighter, and I felt agitated and uncomfortable. A burning pain had started in my throat, which gradually inched down to my chest. By the time I could feel the pain below my ribs, I was very distressed, wanting to jump out of my own body. A strange sense of dread and fear gripped me. 

From that point, I stayed in bed for three weeks straight. My breathing grew worse day by day. If I walked to the bathroom, my heart rate spiked. 

At night, the breathing was worse. Scared of not making it to the morning, I'd leave a TV show on to keep me company, while I dozed on and off. Every time I opened my eyes, I'd struggle to breathe, and end up drenched in sweat. I had to stay upright, or I felt I was drowning. 

'Call back if you're coughing up blood'

Each morning, I'd phone 111, hoping that I might be entitled to some oxygen. Typically, they'd say to expect a call back from a clinician within an hour. Four hours on, I'd still be waiting

Finally, a clinician would advise me to take fluids and paracetamol, and to rest. "Call back if you're coughing up or passing blood," they'd say. So, of course, I was waiting for that to happen as the next stage. My obsession with bodily fluids and functions became almost medieval.

Day five, I called my GP. He asked if I'd been abroad. I replied that I hadn't. He said it must be flu. I told him I'd had the flu jab, but he insisted I was worrying for nothing. 

By day nine, I couldn't breathe if I lay flat, and had a high temperature. Distressed, I went back to the GP. "What day are you on now?" he asked. 

"Twelve," I replied.

His response this time was: "There's no medicine on the planet that I can give you for this. I hope and pray you get through to day 14, my dear." 

I didn't want prayers. I wanted oxygen.

The next morning, I asked my husband to call an ambulance. I didn't want to die in the house. About an hour later, a call from a paramedic advised me to make myself a nice hot drink while I waited for another clinician to call back. I wept at the way I was failing to communicate to them. 

The ambulance never came. I just went back to bed, thinking my time was up.

'You can't still be ill?'

And so the groundhog day of hell went on, until a week later I woke up so drenched in sweat that it was like someone had thrown a bucket of water over me. The feeling of glass shards spiking my upper back was severe. 

This time, when I called 111, I had a call back from a lovely doctor who was recovering from the virus himself. He got me into A&E, I had a bunch of tests and, as soon as the drip started working, I began to feel better.

Initially, I assumed that I'd recover within two weeks. But, after my second lot of antibiotics, I realised it might take a week or two longer. 

At some point, I had to ask the GP for sick notes, which was a thoroughly humiliating and demoralising experience. By the third month of hearing, "You can't still be ill?" and people telling me to get out in the sun and get some fresh air, I began wondering if I was going to experience these symptoms for ever, or whether it was just a very slow death. 

Fortunately, in May, I read a blog post in the British Medical Journal by Paul Garner, a professor of infectious diseases, about his experience of Covid. He mentioned a Facebook group for people who have or had Covid. I joined, and realised that there were thousands of people like me around the world, all taking much longer to recover. It wasn't me being rubbish. It wasn't all in my head. 

If you have any colleagues who are experiencing long Covid, the main way you can help is to start from a place of kindness. We need allies. Everything is difficult when you are recovering from Covid. We have been largely left to fend for ourselves. 

Practical help might be appreciated. Take your co-worker some milk and a loaf of bread. Be considerate. Simple things: give someone who is short of breath time to respond on the phone, ask how she or he is, ask colleagues what they feel they can manage when they return to work. 

Pacing is really important for people with long Covid: pushing yourself too hard may cause a setback. We need to recover at our own pace and frequently rest. This is a novel virus, so medics don't have the answers. We are healing ourselves, and getting over the trauma caused by lack of treatment. 

Read up on long Covid, to save us having to explain. Don't ask, "Are you fully recovered yet?" as it implies - whether or not this is the intention - that we darned well should be. And, besides, we have no idea how to answer.

Pippa Wilson is a primary teacher in Buckinghamshire

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