‘I thought I was going to die’: Cork nurse speaks out about long Covid hell

A Cork mother who contracted Covid-19 tells Ann Murphy how the virus has severely impacted her life long term and how, even nine months after being diagnosed, she’s still dealing with brain fog, as well as chest, joint, and muscle pains
‘I thought I was going to die’: Cork nurse speaks out about long Covid hell

Mairead Coakley and her husband Colm

BARRYROE mother Mairead Coakley will never forget the phone call she received last April confirming that she had Covid-19. But she will also never forget the many months since, as she still recovers from the virus that has plunged the world into crisis.

She tells The Echo: “I was tested for Covid-19 routinely from work in mid-April as I am a nurse. I will never forget that phone call from the public health doctor to confirm that I had Covid-19. I had to isolate straight away so as not to infect my whole family. My first symptom was waking up with a crushing pain in my chest and my lungs felt they were on fire and I had a very slight dry cough.”

Mairead’s health declined over the following days, with a tightness developing at the back of her nose and the back of her throat.

She recalls: “I felt if it had gone one fraction more I would choke. It was an awful sensation and frightening. My nose and my ears felt like they were blocked.”

As a mother of five young children, the days in isolation were very difficult, particularly when her daughter begged her to let her see her.

Mairead, who is in her 40s, says: “She was distraught and I was the same on the opposite side of this closed door. My heart was breaking.”

Her daughter had been running a low-grade temperature at the time and was awaiting an appointment in Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin.

Mairead explains: “My fear was that, if she had to be admitted to hospital with Covid-19, we would not be allowed in with her. We wondered did she have an underlying condition that would make her more susceptible to complications if she contracted Covid-19. I was so worried and stressed about this.”

One of her sons became very ill after contracting the virus, with a high temperature, a headache, and a pain in his chest and back. He also spent one night vomiting.

Meanwhile, Mairead continued to feel very unwell, saying she dreaded each night because her breathing was so difficult and she had feelings of suffocation. As a result, she slept in a room with three open windows to help ease her breathing issues.

She admits: 

“There was a few nights that I thought I wouldn’t wake up in the morning, between the fear, breathing difficulties and the unknown that lay ahead.”

She adds: “After sleeping, my eyes would feel sticky and I used to have a headache. My food tasted like cardboard. Yes, I do have asthma but I wouldn’t need to use inhalers from one end of the year to the next.”

She then developed a kidney infection, which required antibiotics. But as the 12th day of her sickness dawned, her condition worsened instead of improving.

Her breathing deteriorated and paracetamol was no longer able to relieve the chest pains she was experiencing. As a result, she was taken to Cork University Hospital (CUH) for assessment. Her inhaler medication was trebled, while she was also advised to regularly take paracetamol.

Nine days later, she was finally allowed to come out of isolation but, instead of being delighted, she was exhausted.

She remembers: “I couldn’t wait for this day. Now that it was here I should have been thrilled but I was exhausted. I continued to have pains in my chest. The painkillers were only having an effect for two hours. The high-dose inhalers appeared to be making no difference.

“Three-and-a-half weeks from my first symptom, my legs felt like they were on fire. I was kept awake at night by the pins and needles in my legs that ran from below my knee to just above my ankles on both legs.

“It was like I had walked through a field of nettles.”

She continues: “My deep veins in my calf were painful; they looked perfect from the outside. I started taking Disprin as I was aware of the incidents of clotting with Covid-19. I was trying to keep walking to prevent clots, but I was so weak I had to push myself. I felt like this virus was travelling through my body and attacking any weakness I had. At this stage, I felt very weak but thought I should be over the worst.”

However, she was wrong. Within a few days, she was admitted to CUH with tachycardia and raised clotting levels, along with increasing chest pain.

She reflects now: “That first night in hospital I thought I was going to die as the pains in my chest were so severe. I had been commenced on anti-clotting injections and painkillers. These painkillers had no effect on my chest pain. This was the scariest night of all. I had a CT scan of my lungs and a doppler ultrasound of my leg to rule out a clot. I remained there for four days.”

Although improved, Mairead says she was diagnosed with post-viral fatigue a few months after her Covid-19 diagnosis. Despite having shaken off the virus, she spent most of her days asleep, while she also experiences shortness of breath with even the slightest exertion.

Weakness was also overwhelming, with her legs feeling as heavy as lead.

And she says that simply lifting a cup of tea would cause her heart rate to soar to 110bpm.

Now, nine months on, Mairead is still affected: “I have severe pain in my lower limbs, especially my hips and hip muscles. When I sit for any length of time, I find it difficult to stand afterwards. I have short-term memory loss and can even forget what I am speaking about in the middle of a sentence. The brain fog is indescribable. Even trying to resolve disagreements between the kids would leave me so weak that I couldn’t even move a limb.”

Mairead Coakley with her husband Colm, daughter Ashling, and sons Ronan, Donnacha, Cillian and Páraic
Mairead Coakley with her husband Colm, daughter Ashling, and sons Ronan, Donnacha, Cillian and Páraic

She remembers one of her children saying to her last summer that all she could do was sleep, and that she could not even partake in a picnic in the family’s back garden.

Neighbours and relatives were amazing in helping the family in a practical way. And she also says she has received great support from work colleagues and friends.

Her husband Colm took on the running of the house and the grocery shopping as well as working full time, while Mairead tried to recover.

But she says: “It’s like I have slept for the last nine months. It is unbelievable. When I would put my head on the pillow, I would be asleep within seconds at any time of the day.”

And as Ireland aimed to “save Christmas”, Mairead found the run-up to the festive season very difficult as a mother of five young children, finding the preparation for it overwhelming.

She says: “Everything and everywhere I went was all planned around my naps. I had to take a sleep before I went anywhere and when I came back. My oxygen levels did drop before Christmas and my heart rate went extremely high. 

"Just to blow dry my hair, my heart rate was 125bpm. When this happens, my legs get very weak and I have to lie down.”

Mairead has continued to get tests, including a recent CT scan and a heart monitor, and is currently awaiting the results. In the meantime, she has received the Covid-19 vaccine as a healthcare worker, but she has not been able to return to her nursing since last April.

She reveals: “Today my lungs feel like they are raw on the inside and the severity of my chest pains have improved but they still continue.

“I can now go longer without a daytime sleep. Surely this has to be a good sign. But my memory is still severely affected, which is a huge worry to me. There is no change with the brain fog and the muscle and joint pains. There are days that I feel so weak and light-headed that I feel like fainting.”

Mairead says she also worries about her two children who contracted the virus and hopes they won’t have long-term effects from it.

She urges the public to adhere to public health guidelines to help limit the spread of the deadly virus. She says: “I am now left with pre-scarring in my lungs. I have missed out on the last nine months of my life. I’m still not out of the woods and just long for that day to have my life back. I would urge everyone to adhere to the guidelines.

“Please think of the healthcare workers who are putting their lives in danger every day doing an amazing job.”

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