‘My 17 days in a coma fighting pneumonia and sepsis in ICU’
One day I was sitting at my desk at News Letter headquarters, when I realised I was coming down with the cold. So far, so commonplace. It was January; who doesn’t have to reach for the Kleenex in this desperate and bluest of months? I felt feverish, shivery. I sneezed and felt a cough brewing. I packed up at the end of the day, feeling utterly horrible, self-pityingly wretched. But I had no doubt the adequate dose of Co-codamol, a bag of oranges and some Lucozade would sort me out, plus an early night under a heavy duvet curled up in the foetal position beside my beloved bedside radiator.
But I was up the whole night in a feverish haze, my temperature spiking. By the next morning I couldn’t compose a text to explain to my co-worker why I couldn’t make it into the office. My cognition had gone awry. I phoned the newsroom but couldn’t get the requisite words out. Sentences stalled in my brain. Words fluttered sideways, hitting the object inches too low. I shivered desperately. My head ached.
After a few days in bed drenched in sweat I phoned my brother Brendan in tears: “I can’t make out what’s wrong with me...” I trailed off, frightened by the intensity of my fever, which made me feel I was in another loopy dimension of strange, febrile thoughts and weird, trippy dreams, the sort that come so vividly when you are aguey and shut off from cool, sane reality.
I was beginning to find myself breathless, too. The fever showed no signs of abating. By the time my brother arrived and took one look at me he was adamant we were going to A&E. I was ghost-pale, not eating, breathless, wildly confused.
When we got to the entrance of A&E I felt my legs would give way under me. I tried to describe at reception what was wrong with me, but again words failed.
They put me on a bed and took my blood pressure, blood samples and asked me basic questions. What day of the week was it? What was my date of birth? When I tried to answer I instead muttered garbish. My brother interjected. “There’s something wrong here, my sister is usually very precise.” Fever had turned me into a monosyllabic idiot.
They did chest X-rays. The images showed immense white clouding over both lungs, a lethal, thick fog, obstructing the regular ebb and flow of breath. Next thing there were three anaesthetists and a senior doctor at the foot of my bed, frowning, stern faces causing me rising alarm.
“Ms Savage. You have community acquired pneumonia in both lungs which has reached a serious stage. We are going to put you in an induced coma to give your body the best chance to fight his infection and we are taking you immediately to the intensive care unit.”
I felt as though there must have been some grave misunderstanding. Could I really be critically ill? I didn’t wish to be wheeled off anywhere, never mind an intensive care unit, which in my experience, is where I visited elderly relatives before they died.
“I don’t want to go to ICU,” I said, weakly, tears incipient, wondering what the chances were of simply grabbing my clothes and absconding on foot. But I was unsteady, very weak. My limbs shook. There was nothing for it but compliance. I offered myself up into the hands of experts. I surrendered all.
“You’re very sick,” said a doctor. “We have to take you to intensive care right away. You need to be unconscious and on oxygen to give your body the best possible chance of fighting pneumonia, which is present in both lungs.”
I began to tear up again as they wheeled me off and a large oxygen mask was placed over my face.
“When you come around you’ll be able to breathe a lot better,” said the chief doctor.
I thought he meant a few hours; days, maybe.
But that was me in an induced coma for 17 full days. Seventeen days and nights with a machine doing my breathing for me. Seventeen complete unconscious revolutions of the clock.
The pneumonia in both lungs quickly developed into sepsis or blood poisoning and another form of infection known as MRSA.
Family and friends rallied at my bedside.
I had a tube down my throat and wires connecting me to multifarious machines.
People feared the worst. I was too heavily sedated to comprehend anything.
My body was given round after round of antibiotics, but still the infection persisted. Until I apparently found the will to fight off the illness, the seventh round of antibiotics, an experimental drug called Zanamavir which isn’t even technically on the market, began to work, and slowly the various sedating medications were reduced.
I’d been trapped in a place of protracted nightmares, rising fear, breathlessness, beeping machines, strange voices, fleeting moments of consciousness. Where was I? My hands were bandaged to stop me pulling out tubes. I heard snatches of relatives chatting in my vicinity, I saw nurses approach and recede into the middle distance, now and again the sound of classical music when a family member put headphones in my ears. I noticed I was repeatedly injected with strange substances. I was convinced deep in my dreams that I was in all kinds of places: New York, Washington, Holland, Dublin. My pulse, at one point, was 170 beats a minute. A voice said, ‘Joanne, you’re in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast’. What nonsense, I thought, this is clearly America. Or the Tropics. A jungle, full of wild animals. Mars. The outer reaches of space. The febrile mind continued in its florid delusions unbounded. ‘What’s wrong with these nutty people?,’ I pondered, as I came to. ‘How can they conceivably think this is Belfast?’
As consciousness gradually returned I learned that I’d been under for so long, those close to me had wept at my bedside, fearing the worst.
Now I found myself in a busy pulmonary ward, trying to make sense of my brush with death.
I was so weak and drugged it took me days just to be able to sit up in bed. When I first sat upright the room spinned and my head swam.
It took six weeks for me to get strong enough again to leave hospital.
I watched Netflix on my laptop, I wept from weakness, frustration and confusion, I drank oceans of Lucozade and struggled first to walk and then to shower. I was soon very bored by doctors and blood tests and drips and oxygen masks. I watched the hands of the clock move slowly. On my phone I began to surreptitiously research something about pneumonia and sepsis, the illnesses that had almost proved fatal.
The wards were filled with elderly men and women with serious pulmonary diseases. I seemed an anomaly, but actually pneumonia and sepsis can affect you at any age.
Pneumonia is an infection that inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs, in my case both. The air sacs fill with fluid, causing cough with phlegm or fever, chills, and difficulty breathing.
In the UK, pneumonia affects around 0.5 to one per cent of adults each year.
Pneumonia can affect people of any age, but it’s more common, and can be more serious, in certain groups of people, such as the very young or the elderly.
Sepsis, also known as blood poisoning, is another potentially life-threatening condition, and was in my case caused as a complication of pneumonia.
Scientists say it is the most deadly condition in the world and kills more people annually than cancer, being responsible for one in five deaths.
The body normally releases chemicals into the bloodstream to fight an infection, and sepsis occurs when the body’s response to these chemicals is out of balance, triggering changes that can damage multiple organ systems.
The main cure for both is antibiotics, but not all of us will respond to such medication straight away, or indeed at all, and for me it took several rounds of strong intravenous drugs for recovery to begin.
After a full two months in hospital I was finally discharged wearing my pyjamas with my belongings in plastic bags, back to reality, hurried back to my home in a taxi and staggering up my driveway with a friend holding me steady. It felt like a joyous liberation.
This year, I went to get the flu and anti-pneumonia vaccine, early.
The lesson? Don’t dismiss cold and flu symptoms as a matter of course. Take care of yourself. Listen to your body. If you start to feel seriously feverish and it persists for days, see your doctor. Don’t allow your stress levels to take over until you’re living off ready-made meals, rushed glasses of nightly merlot, adrenaline and minimal sleep, as I had been doing before I fell ill, burning the candle at both ends with little thought for my wellbeing.
More broadly, value your good health, because you don’t know when infection might seriously compromise it.
Nobody expects to end up in a coma in ICU. I certainly didn’t. But it can happen. And I’m supremely, majestically lucky I survived. Life is precious. Don’t squander it.