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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was the fittest I had ever been. I was running up a local mountain three or four times each week, weight training every other day and doing circuit training twice a week.  

I’m a nurse in a Belfast hospital and when lockdown hit, our hospital began admitting all of the city’s COVID-19 patients. We were soon administering non-invasive ventilation (NIV) and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) to multiple COVID patients each shift. 

It wasn’t long before the virus spread to staff. I contracted COVID-19 in April 2020. 

After a few days of illness, I thought I was on the mend. I was wrong. I became very unwell with severe chest pain, proned myself to ease my breathing, and had to be prescribed two inhalers plus back-to-back antibiotics. Fearing the worst, I even put my affairs in order. 

My GP thought I could be experiencing clots in my lung, but after putting so many patients on to CPAP and NIV myself, I couldn’t face going into hospital. Several of my colleagues were very unwell at the same time – one was on CPAP and narrowly avoided ICU. 

My bosses were keen to have me back but post the infection it became clear that I had long COVID.

My body felt heavy. Every muscle ached

Pains, breathlessness, exhaustion 

I was suffering from extreme breathlessness. Walking from the bathroom to another room left me exhausted to the point that I was gasping for air. I was sleeping continuously. There were many days when I slept for 18 hours, yet when I woke up, I felt exhausted like I hadn’t slept at all. My body felt heavy. Every muscle ached.

I started to suffer with cardiac symptoms. I previously had a resting pulse of 55bpm. Now, my heart would start to race for no reason, reaching 140bpm or higher, and flutter. This was accompanied by severe and sudden central chest pain that would strike at any time and literally leave me breathless.

I was off work from April 2020 until the end of October that year. I had no energy. I was referred to Occupational Health and had telephone consultations with them. I was breathless even talking. They were very supportive and did follow-ups with me.

I get fatigued so easily. One short shift floored me for days

I was also given appointments with a clinical psychologist, as were my colleagues. I had a few sessions on the phone but although it was good to talk about it, the whole COVID experience on a personal and work level was just too traumatic. I know I can self-refer if I feel I need further sessions.

My GP was very supportive too. All consultations and prescriptions were over the phone due to ongoing COVID restrictions, but they helped arrange cardiac and respiratory investigations. 

Occupational Health recommended a phased return to work over a month. I then used annual leave to reduce my hours for another month. I really needed that, as I get fatigued so easily. One short shift floored me for days. My colleagues have been supportive – a few of them are also experiencing long COVID, so it’s good to be able to speak to people who understand.

Alongside the fatigue, I developed other issues with sleep. Although I was sleeping for excessively long periods, I would have night terrors and wake up with my body paralysed. Sleeping remains an issue for me. I’ve had a 24-hour tape and multiple other respiratory investigations to start trying to find out why this is happening.

Graphic of woman struggling to sleep

Trying to stay positive 

Fast-forward to September 2021 and I am working full time again, but unable to do nights as I remain easily fatigued. On my days off I sleep for 12-18 hours just to catch up. I still have vivid, terrifying dreams. Before COVID, I’d only ever needed five hours sleep each night to feel refreshed. My brain still feels foggy and every muscle in my body aches for no reason. Sometimes, I’ll be in work having a conversation and my mind goes blank. It is embarrassing.

In the past few weeks, more than a year on from my initial infection, I was finally able to return to the gym. I can only manage very short periods. My previously low and steady heart rate goes through the roof. I am startled easily and get sudden central chest pain when this happens.

Breathlessness remains an issue. My lungs feel like they are heavy and full of sand. I have a cough which comes and goes. 

I’m a shell of the person I was, but I am focusing hard on being positive

Life has changed hugely. I have gained four stone as I’ve been unable to train. Whereas I used to run half marathons, now I can barely muster the energy to get up most days. But I am grateful for the small improvements I’m making, finally getting back to the gym to try to rebuild myself. 

My symptoms come and go and that is the difficult bit. I recently had to take two weeks off work because my heart rate dropped to the low 40s and I could barely keep my eyes open. 

When the pandemic began, I wasn’t afraid of getting COVID as I knew I was extremely fit. It still shocks me that I feel so exhausted now. COVID has been life-changing and I’m a shell of the person I was, but I am focusing hard on being positive.

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