'Intense pain, hair loss and no taste - coronavirus has completely floored me'

ITV News West Country reporter Jacquie Bird.

Regular viewers may have noticed I haven’t been on screen for a little while. In fact, the last time I appeared live on ITV West Country was on Tuesday 22 December, when I was at a lovely nativity scene at a theatre in Bridport.

The reason I have been away for so long is because on that day, as I drove home from Dorset, I started to show symptoms of what I now know was coronavirus.

I’m not usually one to share personal stuff about myself, but I know over the past few months I have read a lot about Covid. Some of it has been unrelatable, some of it has been rubbish, still more has been terrifying, but a good proportion has really helped me feel like I am not alone. It has reassured me the things I’m feeling and am still suffering from are not just me being a bit pathetic. They are real. So, I thought I’d share a bit of my story, in the hope that it might help someone else who was feeling as scared as I have been...

I had had a bit of a headache that afternoon and as I drove home I started to feel as though I was coming down with a cold.

The next day the cold had definitely come in, I had a runny nose and I was a bit hoarse. If I talked for too long, it made me cough.

In myself, I felt absolutely fine, but suggested to my news editor it was probably best if I didn’t go out to interview anyone, because although I only coughed if I talked too much, I thought it might make interviewees feel a bit uncomfortable, particularly as I was doing a story about Covid. He agreed and suggested I got a test. 

That was to be the last time I left my house for nearly a month.

On Christmas Eve I was still full of cold but worked from home, feeling fine in myself.

Jacquie says the virus "completely floored" her.

My mum, who I haven’t seen in person since October, was coming to us for Christmas Day. I’d called her to tell her I’d taken a test, but I was convinced I just had a cold and it would come back negative. In the unlikely event it was positive, my mum would not be able to see me or my family and would have to spend Christmas Day on her own. That was the last thing we wanted.

Christmas Day arrived with still no notification from the NHS about my test result. My mum said she would come later in the day, but would sit outside in the car until my test result arrived. It was an annoyance really. I was still feeling ok, still full of cold, but nothing more.

We got ready for the day. My children opened their presents and we got Christmas lunch ready. At around midday I received a text. It didn’t really make any sense. It didn’t say I had tested positive, but it talked about keeping other people safe. Within seconds another text arrived which said I had tested positive. At the same time, the doorbell rang, my mum had arrived.

Among many tears we had to send my mum away.

Despite the fact Track and Trace did not ask me for details of anyone I had been in contact with during my last day at work, because we had followed all social distancing guidelines during both shoots during the day, I felt it was important to let everyone know.

So I contacted work, along with the cameramen I had worked with and I also called the interviewees I had seen on that day. It was emotionally exhausting. I felt terrible I had this illness and had potentially given it to other people, my colleagues, the interviewees and my family. That guilt stayed with me for a long time, despite the fact everyone I spoke to, those interviewees, my colleagues, everyone, couldn’t have been more kind and certainly didn’t blame me, but I blamed myself.

As the afternoon wore on I started to feel more unwell. My eldest child realised she couldn’t taste or smell anything, so my husband took her for a test too. Neither he nor my youngest had any symptoms at all. We ate a very sad Christmas dinner, with my mum on Facetime eating leftovers from the day before on her own at her house.

By this time I couldn’t taste or smell anything either, my head was pounding and I was feeling really unwell. Myself and my daughter then isolated ourselves, her in her bedroom, me in the spare room. I didn’t go downstairs again for more than three weeks.

The first few days I felt like I had the flu. A raging headache and aching limbs. I was hot and cold, even my skin hurt.

I had really intense pain in my hips and lower back that made it impossible to get comfortable, but I also struggled to lift my head to move myself. I could only sleep intermittently.

It seemed to be attacking areas of weakness. I had an old injury in my knee where I’d fallen off my bike a few years ago. That became so sore it felt like a million knives sticking in me. My elbows and wrists were very sore as were my ankles. Every part of me ached.

My daughter regained her sense of taste and smell within days and had no other symptoms. She felt fine, but stayed in her bedroom like me to do what we could to protect the rest of the family. We kept our windows open to try to keep air flowing. Still no symptoms from anyone else.

My cough became more persistent as the days wore on and as our quarantine period came to its end. My chest began to feel tight and I couldn’t catch my breath. I tried to contact my GP for advice but there were no appointments. The receptionist suggested I tried eConsult. However, as I had Covid symptoms, it referred me to 111. After answering a few questions from a pro-forma list the call handler told me to ring 999.

I was finding it very hard to catch my breath. I was very frightened and was crying. My daughter had come in as she’d heard I was upset. I didn’t feel I needed an ambulance, I just wanted to talk to someone who could give me some reassurance that I was OK. But by this stage I was gasping for breath and I ended up calling 999. 

Two paramedics arrived pretty quickly. They were great, very calming. By this stage I was absolutely terrified and this had exacerbated my shortness of breath.

Although I was feverish, my other vitals were just on the right side of needing to be admitted. They told me, as the Track and Trace callers had, to keep taking paracetamol and ibuprofen, to rest, to drink plenty. And then they left.

The most difficult part of all of this has been the isolation. For the first 10 days, while my lovely family kept bringing me food and drinks, they kept away. I was shut in a room on my own, feeling lousy and unable to talk to anybody about it. I had lovely text messages and calls from friends and family too, but not seeing anyone for more than a few fleeting minutes from a distance seemed to make things a lot harder to bear.

Jacquie with her family. Her daughter also tested positive for the virus.

And of course the thing I could do, read up about Covid online, often made me feel more frightened than ever.

More days passed and the worst of the symptoms started to subside, although I was completely exhausted, still had weird limb pain and felt completely weak and feeble. My arms and wrists were sore and I couldn’t make a strong fist. Although after the third week in bed I managed to come downstairs, I couldn’t do much else than lie on the sofa. My head continued to ache and I couldn’t concentrate on much more than quiz shows on the television.

On my first day leaving the house, I made it 200 yards up the road before I had to turn around and come back again. Since then I have managed to walk up into the park but it is slow progress. On a couple of occasions, my husband has had to come and rescue me as I haven’t been able to make it home.

Before Covid-19 I was fit and well, in fact I can’t remember the last time I was ill. During the past two lockdowns I challenged myself to do some form of exercise every day. I joined the tennis club, although I spent more time picking up balls than hitting them. I consider myself to be pretty fit, I have a busy life, a busy family, a busy job.

Covid has completely floored me. Even now, eight weeks on, I struggle to walk any distance, certainly not at any speed.

I still have this weird limb pain, almost like cramps in my arms, legs, even my fingers. I have a headache every day and I still have little taste or smell. I can taste lemons and whether something is sweet or salty, but not what it actually tastes like. I can smell burnt things and cooking onions, but nothing else. And, although you may not believe it from reading this, I find it hard to find words sometimes.

The brain fog you hear people talk about has made me grapple with what I want to say. It’s taken me ages to write this paragraph, as I’m not sure I can properly describe it. I feel hazy and still struggle to concentrate.

I have talked to my GP about how I’m feeling and they can offer me no more treatment than the over the counter medicines I’m already taking. I’ve also started taking Vitamin D as I’ve read that can help. But because I wasn’t hospitalised and ventilated, there is no treatment GPs are offering people for Covid. There’s a Long Covid Course, a support group available online from Torbay.

Jacquie Bird.

Patients and MPs have urged the government to consider Long Covid as an “occupational disease” and to pay compensation to frontline staff, like medical professionals and healthcare workers, who say they cannot return to work months after being infected with coronavirus.

I am really lucky, ITV has been so supportive of me as I recover from this illness and has put no pressure on me to come back. They have urged me to listen to my body, to not do too much and I have had so many supportive calls and messages from my colleagues, welcoming me back but also urging me to take care of myself. I’ve had the same from viewers who’ve noticed I have not been around. It has been very touching.

Coronavirus may have been with us for the past year, it may be on our news every day, but the effects of it are still little known and understood. There’s no rhyme nor reason why some people are affected worse than others. In my household two of us tested positive, one was affected much worse than the other. The other two had no symptoms. Why was that?

Aside from the lasting, draining side effects, the most difficult thing for me has been the isolation, the not knowing. I’ve felt pathetic. Why am I still struggling with this when others have got better so quickly? But reading other people’s stories, seeing that others are suffering from the same things has reassured me. I hope this will do the same for someone else.

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