Exactly a year ago, my family and I went on a ski trip during half term. A new virus strain with serious flu-like symptoms had already been in the news in the preceding weeks, but it was still “a China thing”. Face masks were only worn by a handful of people passing through Heathrow when we departed for the Alps that winter’s day.
Upon landing in Zurich, I tweeted the following about one of our co-passengers: “The dude seated in front of me removed his mask only to knock back two double gin & tonics on a 7:45 AM flight this morning… I suspect liver disease might kill him before #coronavirus does”.
Twelve months later, I’m one of the statistics. No, thankfully I’m not dead (yet), but I am one of the 110 million people around to have officially caught the dreaded virus. And I can confirm that it was not a pleasant experience.
Let me begin by stating that my own illness was probably in the mildest 20% of cases (I’m ignoring those who experience it in an asymptomatic way). I never felt particularly short of breath and I did not end up in hospital. But for a few days last month, I was certainly in a worse physical state than ever before.
Prior to testing positive a week after New Year, I was probably as fit as I’ve ever been. Even though I have been taking part in marathons and ultras since my student days back in the dark ages, I actually managed to run more in 2020 than any prior calendar year. I had lockdown to thank for that: no daily commute to gobble up valuable hours each day, no business travel to upset my routine, and hardly any social interaction or other leisure activities to compete for my time.
Then, nearly seven weeks ago, I started having flu symptoms. I thought nothing of it at first: it’s happened before. A couple of days later, I could not taste either the copious amounts of Tabasco or the delicious hamburger that I was trying to enjoy as an accompaniment. Weird feeling that: suddenly you start concentrating on the texture of the food more than ever before, as it’s the only aspect that you can still appreciate.
I knew it was time to go for a test, and it was no surprise when a positive result was returned the next day. The flu symptoms were starting to get worse – coughing, runny nose, fever, headache, lack of energy, the works. But I was still up and about, checking emails, responding to clients, watching Arsenal lose, keeping a stiff upper lip.
And then, after nearly a week, it finally hit me: a feeling of consistent fatigue unlike anything I’ve experienced before. As I started sinking deeper into it, I began to worry that I was going to die. Twenty-four hours later, I started worrying that I might in fact not die.
This may all sound a bit hyperbolic, but thoughts like those certainly crossed my mind. Being male and of a certain age, I am at a stage of life where the evidence suggests I’m just about entering the statistical sweet spot of Covid-19 and its trail of devastation.
I may have been pretty fit going into this, but I have always been prone to elevated blood pressure as well as high cholesterol. On my father’s side of the family, practically a whole generation has been wiped out by premature heart disease. If I had any significant co-morbidity, was the virus going to find me out and use this against me in the days to follow?
Throughout this period, I took comfort from the words of David O’Sullivan: about a week before I fell ill, I saw an item on Facebook in which this South African broadcaster described his and his wife’s torment at the hands of Covid-19. If you have not yet read the piece, do yourself a favour and search for it on the internet – you’ll go far to find a description of the disease which is as comprehensive and funny in equal parts. Based on my own experience, it’s also pretty accurate.
I’ll quote just a couple of David’s paragraphs:
“… exhaustion was the symptom we were ill-prepared for. I had interviewed many doctors, and Covid sufferers and the issue of fatigue had passed me by. Possibly because I didn’t see it as a problem. Tired? Well then, lie in bed, have a nap, read a book, lie on the couch, watch TV—no big deal.
It’s not like that. It’s an overwhelming, debilitating fatigue which sucks all the energy out of you. Walking around the house left us exhausted. My resting heart rate was an alarming 110 beats per minute (normally it’s between 55 and 60). Our brains barely functioned. We couldn’t read a book or watch TV because it was too much effort. All Jacqui and I could do is sleep.”
Pretty much everything in this summary resonates. I tried to watch a series on Netflix, for example, but I was not able to keep my eyes open for more than about five minutes at a time. The consistent dozing – combined with endless coughing – also meant that it was practically impossible to have a proper night’s sleep when darkness finally fell. It felt like the ordeal would never end.
If there was one line in the O’Sullivan piece that gave me more hope than anything else during this period, it was his reference to the end of the bad patch arriving on day five. I kept on telling myself that I’d hopefully be OK, if only I could get to that milestone without having to call an ambulance. I’m not sure how much of it may have been psychological, but once again, this timing chimed 100% with my own experience: as if by magic, I could feel how the fog started to lift after about four rather unenjoyable days and nights.
Unfortunately, however, the after-effects lingered. A persistent cough stayed with me for another couple of weeks, the general malaise even longer. As recently as last week (more than a month after testing positive), I had to lie down for an afternoon nap in between meetings. I am still not able to run; in fact, walking my dog around the block leaves me slightly out-of-breath, sometimes even a bit light-headed. But I do think I’m getting there – the slumps seem to be fewer and further apart.
Speaking about running, I recently came across a social media posting in which Zola Budd described her own Covid-19 experience. Even though the famous barefoot runner of yesteryear apparently had no severe symptoms even at the height of her own illness, she was still battling with an elevated heart rate more than three weeks after being sick (in her case, more than twenty beats per minute faster than normal). Not only is Zola a couple of years younger than me, but she is of course also an elite athlete… so who am I to complain about an enforced break in training?
There have been other side-effects. Firstly, Covid-19 seems to lead to short-term memory loss (David O’Sullivan writes rather humorously about this as well). Also, it affected my eyesight: for about ten days after my bad spell, I couldn’t read without at least a +1 prescription (my eyes are better again, thankfully). And thirdly, I can really recommend this disease to anyone who may be interested in losing weight rapidly – I shed more than 3kg in the first two weeks (sadly I’ve put most of it back in the interim, given my current sedentary state).
The weight loss was clearly a function not only of battling the virus itself, but also the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much of a point in eating when one is not able to taste anything. My appreciation for food started to return after about a week; enjoying a nice glass of wine to go with it took much longer. Perhaps Covid-19 was God’s way of telling me to have a Dry January.
Oh yes, did I mention that Covid-19 also leads to short-term memory loss?
People ask how and where I contracted the virus. To be honest, I have no idea, given the realities of lockdown London. Clutching at straws, I’d suggest that it may in fact have happened whilst out running: about 5 days before testing positive (the “perfect” incubation period, according to the University of Google), I did hill repeats in one of the local parks. The narrow pathways meant that I probably passed about 100 people or more in relatively close proximity within a 20-minute period.
Might that have been the critical moment? I will never know. Quoting David O’Sullivan once more: “Despite my best efforts… this insidious virus spotted a chink in the armour. I can’t be certain where and from whom I got Covid, and quite frankly it doesn’t matter. No one deliberately tried to infect me.”
My 13-year old daughter fell ill around the same time that I did. Fortunately it lasted only a few days in her case; there were also no side-effects. My wife coughed about three times and it was all over. This illness works in mysterious ways.
All’s well that ends well, I guess. I feel better by the day, and I am hopeful that my running career will recommence soon enough. I have signed up for the NHS Convalescent Plasma Donor program; in return, they kindly sent me a free blood test to establish my antibody count. Based on the result, I’ll probably be curing someone from the disease every time I cough in their proximity for at least the next few months.
I keep my eyes on the horizon; my family and I are already looking forward to our next ski trip in twelve months’ time. One can only hope that the world we live in will have returned to some form of normality by then… even if we still have to wear face masks on the plane next February.
Deon Gouws is chief investment officer at Credo Wealth in London.