COPD and coronavirus: “It was a close one, but I survived coronavirus”

Richard also had similar thoughts when the coronavirus pandemic reached Germany. After all, the 64-year-old had been suffering from pulmonary emphysema for over twenty years and had a lot of large bullae in the lungs, some of which already had to be reduced or had even burst. Four years ago, he suffered a bronchospasm and has been oxygen-dependent ever since. His COPD has recently been classified as grade 4. All of this makes for a bad starting point for coronavirus infection.

Richard’s infection with coronavirus happened quite dramatically: he caught it in a rehab clinic at the end of March 2020. Richard was in the rehab clinic in preparation for a further lung reduction operation. He was there to build his stamina and get fit for the upcoming procedure. Instead, his stay in rehab was interrupted after his neighbour got ill and tested positive for the virus. He returned home and was also tested. Although he had no symptoms of coronavirus, his test came back positive. His lack of symptoms did not last long. In an interview, Richard talked about what it was like for him to have COVID-19, and how he nearly didn’t live to tell the tale.

PARI-Blog: Richard, when did your first coronavirus symptoms develop, and what were they?

Richard: I was struck down with illness two days after the test. I had a fever, strong limb pain, was short of breath, my oxygen saturation fell very sharply and I had no energy. I didn’t really cough a lot, but that's probably because I was prescribed cough suppressants. The heavy coughing could have caused serious damage to my lungs. The same is true for artificial ventilation in the hospital, so it was very important to avoid this. Luckily, I was able to be cared for at home during my entire illness with COVID-19, thanks to my wife and the doctors that came for home visits.

PARI-Blog: How did your coronavirus infection develop over time? How long were you ill for and how bad did it get?

Richard:  I didn’t leave our living room for about nine weeks. Partly due to quarantine, but also because I felt so ill that I couldn’t do anything other than sit or lie down with my upper body upright, and stayed in the living room even to sleep. My wife looked after me selflessly at home. Doctors came to for home visits in full protective equipment to perform tests, draw blood and give me infusions. I received blood thinners as I’d developed small clots. I nearly died of suffocation several times. My wife kept having to encourage me to stay strong and keep breathing. My regular oxygen treatment was no longer enough, even though my wife turned up the oxygen supply on both my devices as far as it would go. I was therefore given a high-flow device, which supplies up to 50 litres of air mixed with oxygen per minute. This led to a mild form of positive pressure respiration. Using this device allowed artificial ventilation with intubation to be avoided, because I was getting oxygen into my lungs round the clock without me having to consciously make the effort to breathe in. Despite that, my saturation sometimes fell below 70%. To compare: Before COVID infection, my saturation at rest was usually around 92%. Due to my oxygen depravation during my illness, I can’t fully remember much of the time I was ill. I was often in a kind of daze. I could hear voices and knew that someone (such as a doctor) was there, but couldn’t properly see them or hear what was being said. My state meant that I also couldn’t receive respiration therapy or similar during this time. I was no longer able to inhale my aerosol spray myself. My wife had to give me it. It was a very difficult time, and it a close one, but I survived coronavirus.

PARI-Blog: You say that your wife looked after and cared for you. Did your wife not get infected?

Richard: Yes, my wife was also ill with COVID-19. She had a cough, headache, loss of taste and smell and felt unwell for many days. But she looked after me anyway. She’s convinced that her body stayed strong because she knew that if she gave up and left me on my own, then I wouldn’t have had any chance of survival.

PARI-Blog: You said you were ill and bedbound for nine weeks. Have your lungs suffered long-term damage due to coronavirus?

Richard: Yes, the coronavirus has left its mark. My lung function has got worse, and my FEV1 level is now only 32 percent. Before COVID, it was a few percentage points higher. I also recently got a CT scan. The images showed that the bullae in my lungs have got even bigger. They also showed adhesions. Only time will tell whether these will go away again.

PARI-Blog: How are you feeling now?

Richard: My recovery has been very slow. It’s only been that past two or three days that I haven’t been coughing up blood and have been making progress a bit faster. I’m still very weak and unfit. I’ve also lost a lot of muscle mass, and I now need twice as much oxygen as before I had coronavirus. Even the smallest amount of movement causes my saturation to plummet, and it’s very exhausting. By a small amount of movement, I mean walking from the living room to the bathroom or the front door. That’s a distance of less than ten metres. Two weeks ago, I had to take two breaks when walking even this distance. Now I can manage it in one go, at least. But, you have to bear in mind that I nearly died five or six weeks ago. That’s cause for celebration at least. Ultimately, I survived coronavirus with severe COPD. This experience changes the way you look at everything. My wife and I couldn’t have contact with anyone else for a long time, not even our children. We couldn’t go outside, there was no hope on the horizon. Now we can enjoy a lot more, even though I need a walking frame or a wheelchair in addition to oxygen when out of the house, as well as assistance from my wife or another person.

PARI-Blog: Has your coronavirus infection changed anything in your COPD treatment plan or breathing therapy?

Richard: There haven’t been any real changes so far. I receive home visits from my respiratory physiotherapist twice per week, who does exercises with me such as PEP respiration and pursed lip breathing, exertion and muscle building.

PARI-Blog: Richard, thank you very much for sharing your story with us. We wish you a speedy recovery and all the best.

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Note: The statements made in the interview are the individual views of the interviewee. They do not necessarily reflect the PARI view or the general state of science.

An article written by the PARI BLOG editorial team.

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