call me samantha

Call me Samantha

“Call me Samantha xx” was the text message that I woke up to twenty-seven days ago. My world changed that day after speaking to my mum.

During the night, my beautiful brother had been admitted to hospital with suspected Covid after becoming very breathless during the early hours of that morning. I knew that he had felt very rough the week before but had put it down to his diabetes condition. This sometimes left him feeling below par and his blood sugar had gone awry. This illness was different. By the end of his working week which had been a struggle, he had gone home to bed and slept as most of his energy was depleted. There were the tell-tale signs of having lost his sense of smell and a tickly little cough that had appeared. As the authorities advise, until you are considerably ill, there is nothing much to do but self-isolate. He was waiting for the results of his Coronavirus test to come back.

Over the weekend, he did not improve, sleeping for much of it and no motivation to do anything, and he sensed it becoming a little harder to breathe than normal. He’d spoken to my mum who had been worrying, but he did what somebody had advised him to from the NHS. Into the early hours of Monday morning, his breathing worsened and was scaring him as it got harder to manage and he had rung for further advice. After a consultation, he was instructed to ring for an ambulance. A couple of hours later, he had been admitted to hospital. Then I received the text from my mum.

At first, it was hard to accept – my brother, ill in hospital with Covid? I’m not sure why I thought and felt that because for months we have all been bombarded with little else than news of the virus. Of deaths, of severe consequences, of conspiracy theories, of vaccines, of immense global fear as the world had practically shut down. Scenes we have never witnessed before, such as a deserted Disneyland in USA and ghost towns of otherwise thriving cities were ingrained in my memory. Hollywood film production had ceased – whenever had we heard of that before? It was shocking and somehow, much of this year had played out on a surreal level, blurring what felt like fantasy and reality. What I came to realise is that until the virus happens to you, or a close loved one, with serious impact, the validity of the shocking situation doesn’t seem to quite hit home.

It was nonsensical, as my brother, with his other health issues, had been more cautious than most. Shielding for months before his gradual return to work and the very occasional venture outside to a shop, and one trip to a restaurant for a celebratory meal. Each time wearing a mask and socially distancing. His decline had happened so fast – I struggled to take the severity of it in, my brother was very sick.

That day I carried on, as normally as I could manage, the shock not fully registering in my brain. I spoke to my brother that evening as he had been transferred to another hospital, better equipped to deal with his pressing health needs. Hearing his voice, struggling to breathe without the oxygen he’d been immediately placed on, and his fearful undertone, broke my heart. The reality hit me after that call and what proceeded to follow the next day, really sowed the wild seeds of fear into my family and me.

I guess you hope that when someone receives oxygen for 24 hours after struggling to breathe, you start to see improvement, this did not happen. My brother’s health continued to deteriorate. His fever was sky high as the infection had indeed took hold and was ravaging his body. He had been pumped with drugs and had tests, a doctor confirmed Covid, and a scan of his lungs was described as “messy”. None of it offered us much hope, and we were already all desperate to be with him and hold his hand to comfort him and share soothing words to try and alleviate his pain and fear.

He texted me to say “a lot had happened very quickly and could a doctor ring me to explain…” Reading those words frightened me, my head immediately went to the place of “if a doctor needed to call it was not going to be good news”. Some force within me told that fearful voice to shut up, and I began to reply to the text, assuring him that was fine, when the consultant rang. Things were happening fast. Amongst the medical terminology, she sounded calm and factual,l but that felt a little reassuring. Still then at the end of the call after explaining what was happening for my brother, she reiterated the words that my brother was very poorly. It was hard not to freak out at those words, even though she also said that they hoped he would be home within the space of a week. I couldn’t escape the “very poorly” part said in her serious tone. His oxygen levels had been ramped up, and he was now receiving a pressurised flow as he wasn’t responding to the regular delivery. He was also given a blood plasma transfusion supported by prior Covid patients. The words alone sounded terrifying.

A while after the call, I began to cry, feeling very small and vulnerable all of a sudden and went home from where I was working and rang my parents. We all shared the rawness of our feelings, and I felt a big surge of strength to be dependable for my parents, who were crying on the phone. It wasn’t unusual to hear my mum shed tears, but my dad was another story. I knew they had to face one of the worst things a person could face – their child was seriously ill. It was bad enough it being my brother, that was tearing my heart apart, but how must they feel? If that had been my Joe…

Another 24 hours later, we were told the next stage was for my brother to go into ICU. There he may be put to sleep and ventilated – hearing this was devastating to my brother and us. “He may get worse before he gets better” is a hard sentence to take in when it already feels despairing. We kept in touch by phone calls and texts, but my brother was also exhausted as his body fought hard to recover and survive. Not knowing what was going on from one moment to the next was excruciating. The vision of my brother frightened and not being able to breathe flooded my thoughts continuously. We tried very hard to stay incredibly strong and positive for him as he needed that and us now more than ever. I knew that the state of his mind would make the difference.

My parents and I couldn’t mix as my mum had seen my brother during his incubation period. We all needed to be also tested – there were so many painful factors to cope with all at once. That week was endless, as we all slept with our phones on, I say slept, but sleep was broken as we were on high alert just waiting for the next piece of news. Each time he felt he was getting worse or feeling less hopeful was a huge blow and I summoned up the strength somehow, from deep within my gut, to be strong and be the giver of hope and light. I kept reminding myself that this was the peak period, and we just had to get through this together. If we made this, we would be okay.

To help myself, I spoke to people and shared openly from my heart, bottling up my emotions would have driven me insane with worry. I also wanted to know facts. I did my usual trick, and read avidly, researching many articles about how he would likely progress or not, and what to expect at each stage. This helped me to prepare for any outcome as much as I could. It felt as though it was all hanging in the balance as the week dragged out with no change. The virus was following its course, and we needed to hold our faith. He was in the smaller minority of around 15% of the population with prior health problems. Still I comforted myself, knowing that he was in excellent hands and receiving top-notch hospital care. I tried to visualise him feeling well again and recalled over and over, the last time I was with him for the celebratory meal, and what a happy evening that had been.

Coffee and cake at the weekend helped a little, and again, the opportunity to share what was happening and be open to receive support from others was incredible. I reminded myself that where focus goes, energy flows. It was an emotional roller coaster like no other as every day threw up either hope, that was then dashed, or fear and sorrow. Bursting into tears became normal. It was stuck on a loop. There were occasions where my brother would be the first one to message in our family Whatsapp group, which filled us with such gratitude to hear from him. It felt like a huge win, to then hearing him just a few hours later, feeling terrible and hopeless.

Receiving the phone call from my mum while shopping in Aldi, to say he was being taken to ICU was the most devastating moment. The sheer panic rose within to hear the word “ICU”, and at that moment, I was desperate to reach out to my brother, who must have been so frightened. We battled anger and frustration not to be able to be by his side, yet not wanting to overwhelm him with text messages was a tricky balance. The doctors needed to monitor him more closely and ensure that he had a bed in ICU as they were expecting a turn for the worse – the next 48 hours were critical. Critical – another word guaranteed to put the fear of God into you in these circumstances. He would either go downhill or start to turn a corner. Knowing he was in ICU changed the angst for us, it increased tenfold if that were possible. It was nothing short of terrifying, and every moment was consumed with worry for my brother’s now survival. He hadn’t come out as the doctor had thought and his admission to ICU was delayed. As much as we tried to stay positive, there was a part of our selves that wouldn’t let us fully believe that he was going to be okay, as we didn’t know. At this stage, the odds were much higher of him not getting better as only 2% of Covid sufferers end up in ICU and 1 in 3 do not come out again. Maybe it was a defence mechanism. If we had allowed ourselves to fully and sincerely trust that all would be okay and then, god forbid, it wasn’t – how the hell would we cope with that? We needed to keep it real for our sanity.

The following morning was the bleakest moment of my brother’s fight. As he spoke to my mum and me in the morning, we both said and felt precisely the same. He was drifting away from us, his voice was much fainter, he was terrified, and he could sense impending doom. He was very distressed and was adamant that he did not want to be ventilated. It would mean him being put to sleep, so he would not know as his body would get the rest it needed, but he was agonising over what he would put us through, watching and waiting. As much as we didn’t want that for him, we wanted what was best for his healing. It was such a heartbreaking day as I felt I was about to lose my brother. We all thought about it. The tears were intermittent much of that day, and I longed to be with my brother. I could not bear him being scared and alone – that was the most challenging part to manage.

Later that day, after 24 hours of ICU treatment, the difference we heard in him as we spoke was astounding. He sounded like my brother again. There was hope and spirit in his voice at the end of the phone. I wept with relief. And as he explained they had been able to reduce his oxygen a little. it felt like a miracle.

Each day he continued to progress with his journey back to better health. Him full of gratitude and amazement and us full of such immense relief and joy. In such a short space of time and out of the blue, we have all been through a barrage of emotions, thoughts, extreme fears and tremendous blessings. All during the pandemic, and never mind what my brother had to face. Our minds played tricks with us. The things I have shared here, have made such a difference to getting through this as a family pulling together in love.

Towards the end of my brother’s hospital stay, each day a miracle in his words, he revealed to us that he had secretly made a will. I knew that he had been feeling very dark at times, as were we at specific points, but now, he has been home for almost a week, with aftercare, and it feels like the biggest blessing to have come through. Forever grateful.

Samantha Houghton