Spending time with Covid 19 by Ashish Sharma.

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Having Coronavirus is like the kind of guest that arrives at your party as an invite of a friend of a friend, who turns out to be a proper obnoxious git.

Part 1 -  Contract The Virus

One that is determined to be the last to leave, having brought nothing to the affair and intent on eating and drinking absolutely everything you have. You almost know that when it does eventually leave, all you’ll get are insults about how bad a host you’ve been and what a shite get together this really was.

This is a misery virus travelling the world. It is reducing the history and the memory of so many people, turned into piles of statistics like the ashes left behind by a fire rampaging through a forest. And at the moment the only we can try and stop it is by becoming less human day by day drowning slowly in a sea of isolation. No warmth of a hug from a fellow companion, no chance to meet and exchange thoughts and ideas....each of us hiding in the corners we own. If we are lucky with our family......if infected, then in isolation within isolation. How much more cruel could an illness be I wonder?

I contracted the virus and began displaying symptoms around two weeks ago. I never imagined that what started as a bit of light headedness and fever, would end in a makeshift hospital bed, with an 83 year old room mate gasping for breath each second. The descent into hell can be as quick as a roller coaster that suddenly dips churning your stomach upside down.

I live and work as a freelance journalist in Madrid, which in Spain is the epicentre of the virus. While the city has been in virtual lockdown for almost two weeks now, we have been hit hard and the health system is virtually broken. In a matter of just three weeks more than twelve thousand people have had to be admitted into hospitals across the capital. The wrath of the last economic crisis unleashed its anger on Spain’s health service with untold cut backs, closures and job losses. In 2020 failure by successive governments to redress the balance has come back to haunt us. Like a spectre of a ghost of the undead, the virus has wallowed from hospital to hospital rattling through the bones of expiring bodies too weary too fight. Staff exhausted beyond comprehension battle without proper equipment and protection driven by professionalism and pride to not be defeated by such a vicious enemy.

Yet each new day begins with the wailing sirens of ambulances as the hospitals again clog up with the newly sick. 

I am writing this from my hotel of isolation where I have been sent to recuperate after being deemed well enough to leave hospital but still needing medical attention.

Part 2. Off To Hospital

After a week of fighting Coronavirus symptoms at home, which for me ranged from fever, coughing, pulsating headaches, loss of smell and taste plus body aches, suddenly something else happened. On a Thursday night I just felt I was not quite breathing right and spent a torrid night in which all the demons in my head unleashed themselves, like ghouls out of Pandora’s Box. This was the junction I had so prayed I would not reach, when mild symptoms suddenly reveal a darker side. 

I knew the next call was the hospital. Having read and listened to the wall to wall media coverage on the virus, everything inside me now screamed that when complications arise you are in an altogether different kind of fight.

The visit to the hospital was as bleak as the day was bright and beautiful. I was sent for an X-ray and spent an agonising hour waiting for the results. When it was confirmed I had pneumonia in both lungs and would have to be admitted immediately, there was no brave action hero inside me ready for the challenge. Instead, inwardly I found a whimpering yelp, repeatedly screaming, “so I die in the Gregorio Maranon hospital!”

I couldn’t even hug my family or hold my seven year old son before heading to Emergencies. My last physical moment with him would have been saying  ...“be a good boy to mummy and I will see you soon”...spoken at a distance while he sat in another room. Casual and cheery so that he would not be worried about his dad. 

The hospitals in Madrid are overrun being flogged to death by a relentless illness. I spent ten hours sitting on a chair on a drip with close to a hundred other new patients. We were scattered around a huge section of the hospital in different waiting rooms, like a plague of locusts penned in by an exhausted looking medical team. Who were the twelve other people sat in my waiting area? The mother always chatting to her daughters on WhatsApp video. The elderly lady shedding tears in moments when she thought no one was looking, weeping silently into her face mask. The elderly couple, husband and wife sat right next to me. The husband coughing non stop and already fighting for breath. The tanned guy opposite me. He seemed like the kind of jovial Spaniard you see on the beach every summer so happy to have his holidays and loving being by the sea in the sun.....The very quiet lady on my other side who we found out was diabetic and in need of an insulin shot.....As a snapshot of statistics how many from 12 new intakes of my group are going to survive? All of us surely....hopefully...

My name was called out at 5am. They finally had a bed for me. I wandered off in a direction with a nurse who had to ask twice where we were going. We ended up in a section of the hospital which had been closed down but now reopened to accommodate new intakes. I was ushered into a small room with no windows, no bathroom or toilet. In the bed opposite me was another patient masked up to an oxygen tank who was breathing heavily in between massive coughing fits. I realised I was in the same room as the husband who was with his wife, both were sat next to me earlier.

Part 3. In Hospital

At the time of writing, in Spain the latest figures we have for the impact of the virus are shocking. There are 79,000 people registered with coronavirus and we have lost 6,528 lives. How many thousands more have had to suffer in another way having lost their precious loved ones. In just this last week 5,000 people died. Here in Madrid the huge entertainment complex the Ice Palace which has a wonderful ice rink, cinema complex with lots of play areas for all kinds of games has now been temporarily turned into a morgue. A place I have taken my kids a few times. Full of the joys of young people and families, engaging in so many different activities, always bursting with life and exuberance. How will we feel now going back there once this violent tsunami of a virus has washed over us and left us? No one makes a choice like this deliberately but out of sheer hopelessness and desperation.

Hospital staff were very careful in how they were treating us. Due to a lack of proper equipment some 12% of those affected are frontline medical staff and auxiliaries working in hospitals and other medical centres.

My tiny claustrophobic  room with my fellow sufferer had no air con as of course that could circulate the virus. Our door was constantly closed for similar reasons To make it worse we had to wear masks at all times especially with nurses and staff popping in and out. I was on a saline drip for two days and fed a diet HIV retro virals plus Dolquine an anti malarial drug. I was given doses of antibiotics via a drip, to deal with any big time Charlie of a bacteria that fancied its chances of having fun in my lungs with pneumonia already rampaging around. Oh sure, why not, a party for all eh?

My room mate I soon learned was 83 years old. Fernando could not talk much. His face was mainly was covered in a huge oxygen mask the machine it was hooked up to gurgling away as oxygen passed through water before entering his air starved lungs. His coughing fits were terrible to hear as you could feel the pain it put him through. He had lost his mobile phone and had no means of contacting his wife placed in another re instated section of the hospital. And worse he could not speak to his two daughters and their families, nor his son an intensive care specialist doctor living in Qatar. “What’s your daughters number? Let’s call her on my phone and you can speak to her“ I suggested. His gratitude for that small act was so touching that I wept for a long time after to imagine the desperation we all had been reduced to.

After two days, a doctor friend of ours brought me a toothbrush and some books my wife sent me from home. I was also told if I wanted to I could use the basin in the  toilet down the corridor for a quick wash. I was given two soap sponges and a hand towel ....on one day when they had run out of towels I was given a bed sheet to dry myself down with. Having a bath in a tiny hand basin in a toilet is not easy. The sponge produced so much soap I suddenly realised I could not wash it all off without soaking the entire toilet. I washed off what I could. The rest I just had to towel dry the soap directly off my body, all of which left me with the unpleasant feeling of not really being clean.

In between bites of our meal and his ongoing coughing spasms I learnt that Fernando had been with his wife for 69 years, which meant they had met when he was only 14. Could it be that she was his first and the only ever love in his life? There is a romantic beauty about that I always feel. It was the same for my parents too and of so many of a certain generation. There was a motion in plan to try and arrange things so that he could be moved into a room with his wife. It was felt by the entire medical team that this would be the boost to speed up his recovery . And his sparkling face when he was told that gave me untold joy. Yes I knew this was going to work. I imagined that I would meet up with him for a beer when this madness had finished.... take my son along ....ask Fernando if he wouldn’t mind if we adopted him as our grandfather here in Madrid....such was the radiance and charm of the man despite his suffering.....

Fernando was swept out of our room in a fanfare of mirth and joy by all the staff at 3am. He waved as he left us and we all felt happy. I now had a night to myself and wondered who my new room mate would be. When would he come? Would he be friendly? maybe too loud....or in a really bad way?  Given how much the hospital was being overrun I knew my wait would be very short.......

I spent five days in my makeshift room. By Wednesday I was told my recuperation was going well and I could be transferred into an isolation hotel which was being run by the hospital. I would finish my treatment under the care of a medical team based there. I was overjoyed. To leave hospital is always a good sign. It suggests the road to recovery is truly underway. I was parked in an ambulance with two others and soon we sped off like excited children being taken to a surprise location. 

After a couple of days in my hotel I contacted the daughter of Fernando to ask how he was doing. She informed me that unfortunately her father had lost his battle and that he had died on the Wednesday. The day when one soul leapt for joy at the news he could leave the hospital...another one finally gave up the fight and lost his battle. You don’t need to spend a lifetime with someone to know how special they are. In fact that rare quality that some human beings have is felt instinctively and immediately.

I have written this in dedication to Fernando Ruiz Torres, who I am grateful to have known. His magic still shone through even in the hardest of circumstances and at his very end.

Part 4. Journey’s End

The Spanish Health Ministry  says that while deaths are registered daily in the hundreds and the number of the death toll rises, they are now seeing a decrease in the percentage of that daily increase, which hints that perhaps we are slowly reaching that curve.

But how much higher is the figure for people with the virus who have not been tested and are recuperating in isolation at home? And can they really be sure that even after 14 days of isolation these people are truly negative when they wander off down the road to do their shopping again? Who is responsible for this uncertainty? Governments for not continuously investing enough in our national health, or for not having had much foresight when they could see what was happening in China, South Korea Iran then onto Italy? Looking worldwide now for masks, gowns, gloves, respirators, testing kits, is a bit like....... to quote an oft expressed Silicon Valley idiom....building a plane whilst you are flying it. But hindsight is also a wonderful gift for armchair visionaries, back seat drivers call them what you want ....it’s not exactly helpful.

I have been told that today I go home. I am still coronavirus positive but my treatment is done and I fulfil the criteria which allows me to finish my self isolation in my own flat. My family also have the virus to a much milder degree, aside from my son. He has shown no symptoms and charges around the house like a bull seeing red rags everywhere. When he is not fizzing about  with energy, he spends his time passionately drawing Lego Ninjago characters. My wife and step-daughter are more affected and pacing their routine according to their levels of tiredness. My daughter a gifted artist spends time in between doing her homework online by painting beautiful images that float around like pictures in her mind. I love watching her paint. It will be good to be back into family life again. Do we all hug? Bloody right we do! We are reassured as we are all affected even if my wife and daughter won’t be officially tested, we can be together in isolation. Neighbours and friends have been shopping for us so we have many people to thank. 

I am due to be tested on April 4th which is officially 14 days after my initial test and admission into hospital. I have been told a health visitor will come to the flat to carry out the test to avoid the risk of me going outside when I could still be positive. But given that resources are at stretching point, and not enough testing systems available in Spain, I will wait quietly to see what actually materialises on that day.

In my journey through this illness I chose to enforce a media blackout for all the negativity of its coverage. I wanted to surround myself with as positive an attitude as I could. It makes a big difference. One of my worst days for anxiety and lack of sleep was just a few days back. I had to do a piece for a BBC World Service radio news report. Aside from my own situation we wanted to also discuss the general scenario in Spain. I had to dive back into the media coverage, put on my journalistic hat and report on the numbers of deaths and infections and how the Spanish NHS was struggling to cope. 

When we finished I was left embroiled in the negativity of all that I had read. Like venom pulsing through my veins, I could feel the despair of it all coming towards me, strangling me. The night time threw hideous images through the shadows of darkness. My chest felt tight my breathing less rhythmic as I hurled myself into a pit of despair imagining going back into hospital, on a respirator, as I went into free fall into the depths of my despair.

But everyday is new. Every first shaft of light a fresh beginning. And so it was for me the following day. In my isolation in my hotel for the last six days, I have had much time to reflect. Optimists speak of a change in the world. Of a kinder humanity, more in touch with each other. A better appreciation of the fact that we really are one people. Language, colour of our skin, the sex of our bodies do not make us different people, just varieties of the same thing. A blue chocolate Smartie tastes the same as a yellow one it’s just a different colour.  

For two weeks now at 8pm people clamber onto their balconies right across Spain and applaud and enthusiastically cheer NHS workers, who put their lives on the line each and everyday to help look after us the sick. They have now just started this in my home country of the UK. These are such wonderful moments, but how sincere are we? Can anyone really throw an argument back in my face if I said ...imagine a time ten months from now....the virus has gone. Our lives go back to normal. A mad Friday night people out celebrating, drinking beyond control. Would we really not see frontline NHS staff in Emergencies in hospitals late at night never again being insulted, physically assaulted, racially abused by drunk or angry and agitated people. The same people today stepping out and applauding like mad? I choose to reserve judgement. We all believe in a God when our life is in danger, one we soon forget about when times are good again. 

I thank all the people from friends and family to complete strangers who have wished me well on my road to recovery. You have all played a part in resurrecting one fallen human being. You have lifted me when I was down and could not see anything ahead of me. You have played a part in saving one life. Now let us all together go out and see if there is one more person we can also help. One more we can encourage with our words. Maybe an elderly person scared in the loneliness of their isolation. A friend of a friend we don’t know personally, but who is facing the same fears today that I started with over two weeks ago....A quick ..”hi you don’t know me but I have you on my radar now.....should you see the darkness we will be on standby to help you find the light.....it’s ok we are all in this together....no one is alone....”

Ashish Sharma
Broadcast Journalist at Zoom Media International