Long Covid floored me, here’s how I got back on my feet again...

It's four months since Ailin Quinlan was hit by Covid. Here she talks about her subsequent diagnosis of Long Covid and her recovery
Long Covid floored me, here’s how I got back on my feet again...

A demonstration of the treatment for Long Covid sufferers at the Hyperbaric Oxygen Centre in Bandon

LAST October, Covid picked me up by the scruff of the neck like a puppy with a rag doll. It shook me around experimentally; I got a bit of a sore throat and a headache.

Two days later, though, Covid puppy growled and shook harder. I got sick and dizzy and the severe drop in blood pressure that ensued caused me to black out and slice my forehead open on the edge of some bedroom furniture.

There was hospital, six stitches and concussion.

Covid puppy got rougher still, and between that and the concussion my brains scrambled.

I had difficulty piecing a coherent sentence together. I’d start off clear enough, but then forget what I was saying halfway through. My tongue stuttered over words. I wasn’t able to read any form of printed material. My brain turned into wet sand and my focus disappeared.

If I tried to say the word ‘almond’, my brain would throw out ‘apricot’. I had to grab a thought and cling to it or I would lose it in the fog.

I could go upstairs and wander around, trying to remember what I was looking for.

“Do you think I’m brain damaged?” I asked a good and trusted friend. I was, frankly, terrified.

“No,” she said carefully, “but I’m glad you’re seeing the doctor again soon.”

The doctor explained that I had Long Covid, as well as concussion from the bang on the head, but that I was by no means one of her worst cases.

Some Long Covid patients were incapable of lifting their arm above their heads and were unable to string words into a coherent sentence, she told me. I immediately lifted my arm above my head. 

“Good,” she said. “I feel awful,” I mumbled, not the least bit grateful that being able to string a three-word sentence together was a Good Sign.

Days turned into weeks. Things didn’t get better very quickly. I was unable to return to work.

I’m supposed to be in the final stages of a part-time post-graduate degree, but being in Covid-land meant my brain was half-melted, and trying to do the corrections my supervisors asked for was like walking through a bog wearing too-big wellies.

After one hour’s tussling with words, I’d be so exhausted I’d sleep for three. It was impossible to get anything done.

I couldn’t walk a quarter of a mile without shaking with fatigue; sometimes I got so tired my teeth chattered. 

I burst into tears a lot. I worried endlessly. I couldn’t always take in what people were saying to me.

I did an awful lot of sleeping. I couldn’t drink coffee or have a glass of wine or wear perfume. I couldn’t have a bath. It all made me sick.

And, oh my. The fatigue was a killer. I felt that mildew covered my insides. I felt poisoned; I imagined hundreds of thousands of grey dots of decay all over my bones and muscles and sinews and nerves, making everything washed out and sick and weak.

I felt like a walking version of the Circle of Death you get on your computer screen when it isn’t working. I kept telling myself I was getting better. There were lots of ups and downs.

Come Christmas, things started to clear slightly. The doctor saw an improvement in me, and there was, but I still wasn’t able to concentrate that well, I was still physically shaky at times, and I still spent a lot of time listening to meditations on my phone. I discovered Deepak Chopra and Jason Stephenson and The Honest Guys.

I still couldn’t go back to work. There was still not much energy in the tanks. However, by mid-January I was feeling less fatigued. I was able to cycle on my stationary bike for a few minutes and go for short walks.

The doctor mentioned the Bandon Hyperbaric Oxygen Centre. It might give me that final boost. 

“We’re lucky we have it in West Cork,” she said, filling in the form and handing it to me. “They’ve been getting good results with Long Covid.”

The first session cost €55. That was for the tubing, the mask and the oxygen. Every subsequent session was €20.

It’s a charity, run by volunteers. That’s really important, because that’s the only reason ordinary people can afford it. More of this later.

There are two oxygen chambers, each of them with space for four people or so. Demand is strong. Once you’re in and hooked up, the chamber is sealed and the pressurisation process begins. This goes on for several minutes. Then the oxygen supply is opened.

You breathe 100% oxygen for 60 minutes. The idea of hyperbaric pressure is that it allows the body to heal through flooding cells with the pure oxygen.

Once the hour’s over, the chamber is depressurised, which takes a few more minutes.

Kindly volunteers come in then and release you and check you’re OK. Bob’s your uncle; out you go, stumbling like a member of the undead.

The first day, I talked briefly with a young woman from a remote area of Donegal who had Long Covid too. She had come to Bandon to stay in a local B&B and avail of the oxygen chamber twice a day for two weeks. The chamber in Donegal, she said, cost €120 a session. What? I said, horrified. “Who could afford that?”

No wonder the Bandon chamber was attracting patients from everywhere. I even read about a patient travelling from France, where a session in a Hyperbaric Oxygen Chamber cost hundreds of euro. Why isn’t this a community service offered by the HSE, I wondered.

It wasn’t all roses, of course. The hyperbaric oxygen process left me tired because I was breathing pure oxygen instead of the 21% oxygen in what we normally breathe. During the first few sessions, I came out in a sweat. I felt sticky and occasionally slightly nauseated. I imagined something toxic being slowly pushed out from my insides.

Three weeks on, though, things have improved noticeably. It feels like I’ve been steam-cleaned from the inside. My energy levels have risen significantly.

I’m back writing this column again after several months’ absence, doing things I couldn’t do three weeks ago, and expecting to return to work on a full-time basis next month.

In effect, I’m back from the Land of the Undead.

A million thanks to the Bandon Hyperbaric Oxygen Centre and its small army of dedicated volunteers.

Bandon Hyperbaric Oxygen Centre is at 023 8843677. The website is bhoc.ie and you can email them at info@bhoc.ie

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