Published: 06:00, 21 November 2020
| Updated: 17:10, 21 November 2020
Eight months ago, Keith Watson’s life changed forever. Here he tells Jack Dyson about his 95 days in hospital battling coronavirus, and how the long-term effects of the deadly infection continue to haunt him...
When Keith Watson flew out to Lanzarote for a holiday with some of his friends, he joked about the handful of people wearing masks as they waited for their flights at Gatwick Airport.
Coronavirus seemed like a distant problem; the outbreak was in its early stages and the country’s first lockdown had not yet been imposed.
But shortly after returning to his Herne Bay home, the 53-year-old asthmatic found himself struggling to breathe.
“I felt a bit rough - I thought I had a bad hangover from the holiday,” Keith remembers, in between short breaths. “I just started getting worse and worse as the week went on.
“I thought I was having a really bad asthma attack because I believed I would never get Covid. A lot of people still think like that today.”
Paramedics were called to the property in Linden Avenue three times over the next week, before the dad-of-three was rushed to the QEQM Hospital on March 20.
Shortly after arriving, the bricklayer was hooked up to a ventilator and put into a drug-induced coma. He was told by medics that he would not open his eyes for the next 72 hours.
Instead, this was the first of 23 nights he spent unconscious, as doctors and nurses attempted to wrest him from the brink of death.
“They wheeled me into a room at the hospital and the doctor said, ‘Mr Watson, you’re in a bit of a way. What we’re thinking is your body needs a rest to breathe, so I’ll ventilate you’,” he recalls.
“I was tired to the point of exhaustion and I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. I was panting all the time as well; it was like someone was standing on my chest.
“I started thinking about what the doctor said and thought I was in a bad state. I texted my wife and three children to tell them how proud I am of them, and give them my love and my goodbye.”
At the time, more than two thirds of the country’s coronavirus patients who required mechanical ventilators died.
Doctors suspected Keith had contracted Covid. However, his family - of whom his wife and two daughters also experienced fevers - did not learn that he had returned a positive test until six days into his hospital stay.
X-rays also showed that the Newcastle United fan had pneumonia in both of his lungs, which had filled his chest with liquid to such an extent that he says he was “basically drowning”.
Over the following three weeks, Keith’s wife, Sarah, was twice warned that her husband was going to die after his oxygen levels dropped, his heart started to flag and he suffered kidney failure.
Meanwhile, he remained lost in his dreams, regularly seeing images akin to those in Alice in Wonderland as he lay in operating theatres which had been hastily converted into intensive care units.
“You don’t know what’s going on. It was how I would imagine being on a trip would be like,” he continues. “I only had one dream where I wasn’t trapped.”
Twenty-three days after Keith was placed in the coma, doctors started to rouse him.
But due to the number of sedatives in his system, it took him a further two weeks to come round and be weaned off the respirator.
Keith became aware that he had been given a tracheostomy and that he was no longer mobile, which meant he remained fixed to his position in bed.
The workman also discovered to his shock that his hands had swelled considerably and that his toes had changed colour. Family members feared his feet would be amputated.
“My toes were jet black and curling over” he remembers. “There was a shooting pain from my feet I’d never felt before. It was agony.
“My fingers were going purple and were double the size.
“It was difficult in hospital. Because it took two weeks for the sedation to leave my system, I was really disorientated.
“Because I’d been horizontal for four weeks, a lot of my muscle mass wasted away, so I couldn’t walk, use my arms, pick anything up, use my asthma pump or open a pack of crisps.
“But it was really good because the doctors and nurses worked so hard - you could see them running up and down the corridors throughout their shifts.”
Keith spent 95 days - 41 of them in intensive care - at the QEQM and the Kent and Canterbury Hospitals.
At that point, it was the longest a coronavirus sufferer had spent being treated for the illness.
When he finally arrived home in June, more than 100 friends and neighbours lined the street to clap and cheer him as he made his way through the front door.
“I couldn’t believe there were so many people here - it was humbling because I didn’t know that many people liked me. It was really lovely; it was a great surprise,” he says.
“I felt like I didn’t know where I was. I’d lost three stone in hospital, so I felt like half the person I was when I’d left the house.
“I owe the doctors and nurses so much for being here.”
Now, Keith is battling an array of symptoms of Long Covid, the umbrella term for the long-lasting effects of the illness.
He is unable to walk more than 150 metres unaided, suffers from neuropathic pains in his feet, fatigue, shortness of breath and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Keith’s son, George, describes his father’s road to recovery as “an ongoing battle”.
“It’s taken him ages to start to walk again because he was laying down for so long,” the 23-year-old says.
“The pain in his feet still prevents him from walking much, but he needs to walk in order to help his blood circulation.
“The way the PTSD manifests itself is that Covid’s constantly in his thoughts and it’s hard for him to change that. He’s at home now, basically disabled, not working and without anything to do, so he just has constant reminders on the telly of it.
“It’s really hard for him to escape from the reality of what’s happened. It really wreaked havoc with his mental state.”
Although asthmatic, Keith says the condition was not debilitating and that he had never been hospitalised following an attack.
The brickie is hoping to raise awareness of the severity of Covid-19 and is urging greater numbers of people to wear masks.
“I’m still learning to walk,” he adds, “I’ve just got to build it up. A doctor said I might never get my foot working properly again.
“I’ve been a little bit breathless this week; I don’t know if that’s down to Covid.
“I’ve got a psychologist now to try to level me out a bit.
"They’ve said to me that I’ve had the equivalent of a major trauma and have PTSD; it’s given me anxiety and depression. I can watch the telly and just weep.”
Keith is determined to keep battling through his recovery.
“It feels like this is my second life because I should be dead.
“I won’t be beaten.”
Doctors' fears over number of Long Covid cases
Doctors are treating dozens of Long Covid sufferers across Kent - but fear more people could have the illness.
Medics at one practice in Herne Bay say they are treating as many as 50 patients with the condition - a long-term effect of coronavirus in which people experience chronic fatigue, brain fog and breathlessness.
Specialists estimate that 5% of Covid-19 sufferers are sick with the symptoms for at least eight weeks; while one in 45 is ill for more than three months.
Due to a lack of testing at the beginning of the pandemic, Park Surgery practice partner Dr Jeremy Carter says more people could be battling the lengthy illness in silence.
“In terms of the number we’ve seen with Long Covid, there’s no more than 50,” he said.
“The ones who are coming to us are probably more debilitated by it. There are others on a milder spectrum, and they’re the ones we’re potentially not hearing from.
“There may well be more. With the current second wave and a new tranche of patients getting infected, this is probably going to be an ongoing phenomenon.”
The symptoms of Long Covid can also include anxiety, stress and, in some cases, permanent organ damage.
Research conducted by King’s College London suggests the chance of coming down with it is increased among the elderly, overweight, asthmatics and women.
Whitstable Medical Practice executive partner Dr John Ribchester says he and his colleagues have also treated patients battling Long Covid.
“It’s very debilitating. If patients don’t see their GP about it, they can slip further into long-term depression and possibly lose their jobs,” he added.
“Without reliable information as to the number of people who have had Covid, it’s difficult to know whether their symptoms are due to Long Covid or other psychological reasons.
“The antibody test tells you if somebody has had coronavirus in the past, but the current thinking is antibodies don’t develop in everybody.”
Dr Ribchester says that, without a positive coronavirus test, medics cannot be sure if patients have Long Covid or another illness, like chronic fatigue syndrome.
Health officials have estimated that 60,000 people could be suffering with the long-term after-effects of Covid-19.
Dr Carter says the wide range of symptoms makes it difficult to diagnose, which means many patients struggle to access the appropriate care.
“We’re still learning about this,” he continued.
“I’m not aware of the symptoms worsening if they go unchecked. Part of the problem is there isn’t a cure for it, so we have to manage it.
“Some people have been knocked for six by it. We have seen patients whose ability to work, exercise and carry on with their day-to-day functions has been affected.”