— A story of knowledge and recovery
by Paul Gardener, MD
I’m 65, and I’m fit and well. When COVID struck, I was enjoying life. I was doing lots of running and cycling. I felt I was titanium-plated in some ways. The disease was traveling very rapidly through the U.K. I was on a conference call talking about COVID in the U.K. when someone on the call said, “This disease is doubling every 3 days. Anybody that feels unwell in the slightest should immediately self-isolate.”
I had actually felt a bit strange that morning.
Sick for 11 Months
I went home, thinking, “Well, maybe this is what I should do.” I stayed at home and felt a bit strange, but suddenly then on the 4th day I was struck with an illness like I have never experienced before.
I was thrown into bed with absolute exhaustion and sweating. It was like looking down a long tube. It was horrible. I thought I was dying. I was Googling myocarditis and COVID as I lay in the bed. I just sort of passed out, lying down.
Then a couple of hours later I woke up to this most extraordinary illness that went on and on and on. I was ill for a total of 11 months. Utter exhaustion, aches, palpitations, headaches, feeling cold, messed with my mood.
In those first few weeks, there were these constant attacks of this illness. Then it would sort of vanish for a few hours and I was left feeling like a rag doll.
This was all happening while I was watching the news with deaths increasing and ambulances and sirens going on all around. It was a really dystopic world that I felt I was living in.
Every day I woke up and thought, “Today is the day that I’m going to be better.” One day I did actually feel quite a bit better and so I did a high-intensity interval training [HIIT] class in my front room for half an hour, which was a mistake. I was thrown back to bed, with the symptoms even worse the next day.
That continued for up to 6 months. I was deaf, I had tinnitus, and pins and needles, and palpitations. Waking up at night with palpitations is terrifying. Fasciculation in the skin; I could see my muscles twitching under the skin. Terrible, terrible headaches like you’ve never ever had before. I developed difficulty with speaking. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t always find the words. I kept losing words.
I was seen by a hospital consultant at the time, who was great. I went in expecting lots of tests. My friends had all told me that cardiac problems were common and renal problems, and I should get lots and lots of tests.
He just said, “Paul, you know what? I think you’ve got a post-viral syndrome.” We ended up talking about whether to add ginger to carrot juice for breakfast in the morning. It was a very clever intervention. It took my focus off worrying about my organs and reassuring me that he thought I’d get better.
Being Obsessive Didn’t Help
At the same time, the U.K. NHS [National Health Service] advice on how to manage this fatigue was absolutely awful, though. The leaflets were badly written. I actually couldn’t read, so they didn’t help very much. I had to learn myself that mental, physical, and emotional energy all compound to give you the kickbacks if you overdo it.
There were times then when I was actually only up for an hour or two at a time before I’d have to have a lie-down and give myself a bit of a rest to calm myself down.
Of course, during this time, I was obsessively monitoring. I’m a scientist. Of course, I’m going to be doing this and trying to work out what the triggers were, and what my Garmin Body Battery was doing.
None of it really made sense, but the obsessiveness didn’t really help, I think.
A friend brought a cake around and we both had a slice. Then they went and I scarfed the rest of the cake because I hadn’t had anything sweet for ages, and I felt dreadfully guilty. Then the next day, I felt awful. I thought, “Oh my goodness, I’m allergic to sugar.”
I know as time went on into the 7th month, the night sweats declined and the being beaten up by this virus declined, but I was still unwell. I became convinced there must be some hidden biomedical cause that my mitochondria was somehow crippled.
I felt out of control. I felt full of fear and really fear about whether I would ever get better. I thought, maybe I’ll have to retire. Maybe I’ll never run again. At the same time, there were all these media stories of catastrophic organ damage and so on in people with long COVID.