Struggling to breathe, feeling ‘like she was drowning’, Dr Geraldine McGroarty found herself in a bed at the hospital where she worked, wondering if she would survive Covid-19.
‘I just felt so awful, so weak and with a fever of 40c [104f] that wasn’t being controlled,’ she recalls of the day she was admitted to the Royal Free Hospital in London last month.
She had been working there as a locum doctor in A&E, as well as being a surgical registrar at King’s College Hospital.
‘Earlier that day at home, my heart rate had shot up threefold and I’d coughed up what looked like water,’ says Geraldine, 30.
Dr Geraldine McGroarty (pictured) was admitted to the Royal Free Hospital in London last month
The doctor (pictured in hospital bed) had been working at the hospital as a locum doctor in A&E and was also a surgical registrar at King’s College Hospital
‘I’d also had an uncomfortable tight feeling in my chest. I wanted to take deep breaths and couldn’t. I was unable to speak much as I was so breathless.’
Her story is just one being featured in the second part of a BBC2 documentary, Hospital Special: Fighting Covid-19, filmed at the Royal Free during the peak of London’s coronavirus crisis.
Following doctors, nurses and managers on the front line in the fight against the pandemic, the deeply emotional — and in parts harrowing — fly-on-the-wall documentary shows up close the battles patients faced in their fight for survival, and the huge pressures on staff and beds.
In moving scenes, it shows doctors in tears as they break bad news by phone to relatives, and desperately-ill patients video-calling their loved ones, not knowing if it will be the last time they see them.
It also shines a light on the frantic hunt for a successful treatment for the illness. Geraldine is shown gratefully accepting the chance to try a trial drug, while two other patients turn down the opportunity.
She is the first person to be filmed talking about her experience of taking the drug for Covid-19 and, as viewers can witness, in her case the effects were near miraculous.
Having feared she may die, within days of taking her first dose, she was well enough to go home.
It was on April 5, after calling 111 from the London home she shares with her partner Guy, 32, who works in finance, that Geraldine was rushed by ambulance to the Royal Free with suspected Covid-19.
There, she was given oxygen via a mask. A chest X-ray showed severe pneumonia affecting Geraldine’s left lung and blood tests revealed high levels of inflammatory markers in her bloodstream, indicating her body was fighting a severe infection.
‘I couldn’t believe what was happening — it was so scary,’ she told Good Health. ‘I was young and fit. I play in a rugby team and regularly run 10km.
I’d run one the week before in a time of just 46 minutes. Now, here I was on a Covid-19 ward wondering if I was going to die or not. I felt so overwhelmed.’
Geraldine had started feeling unwell six days before. At first she had dismissed her symptoms as a case of mild flu.
‘I felt achy and very cold at work and went home to self-isolate,’ she says. ‘I didn’t think it was Covid-19 because I’d worn PPE [personal protective equipment] when treating patients.
Dr McGroarty is the first person to be filmed talking about her experience of taking the drug remdesivir for Covid-19
A chest X-ray showed that the doctor had severe pneumonia which was affecting her left lung and blood tests revealed high levels of inflammatory markers in her bloodstream
‘But I could have come into contact with patients with Covid who had no symptoms who were in hospital for other reasons. Equally, I was travelling on the Underground and it was packed, so I could have picked it up there.
‘I reasoned that if I did have it, it wouldn’t be serious as I was young, fit and had no underlying illness.’
She went to bed hoping to have recovered for her 30th birthday in two days’ time. But on her birthday, she was so weak and breathless she struggled to speak during a video call with her parents.
She says: ‘I ended up going back to bed, feeling too ill to celebrate.’
Four days later, her condition nose-dived. ‘I had the sensation that I was drowning and couldn’t get out of bed because I was so weak,’ she says.
‘We called 111 and the paramedics brought me into hospital. It was strange being a patient in the place where I worked and seeing familiar faces.’
She was put straight on to oxygen and a Covid test came back positive.
‘A CT scan showed I had virtually no normal lung tissue in my left lung,’ says Geraldine. ‘I became quite tearful. I was worried I was going to die.
My biggest worry was that if my breathing didn’t improve I’d have to be ventilated. Given what I’d been told by doctors about the survival rate for ventilation, I didn’t want that to happen. I knew there was a real chance I might not make it.’
The next morning Geraldine got a lucky break when she was asked if she’d like to take part in a trial for antiviral drug remdesivir, which has previously been used to treat patients with ebola.
The antiviral drug remdesivir works by stopping viruses replicating and is being looked at for use against coronavirus. (Stock image)
It works by stopping viruses replicating and is being looked at for use against coronavrius because it has been promising in laboratory tests.
But results from trials have been mixed. Data announced on April 29 from one run by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S. involving 1,063 Covid patients, found the drug speeded up recovery time by 31 per cent.
However, results of a trial in China, published in The Lancet last month, found remdesivir had no benefits over a placebo in seriously ill patients.
Now, larger trials are ongoing. At the Royal Free, 24 patients, including Geraldine, have been treated as part of a global study of 1,000 people. The results will be published at the end of the month.
The trial compares the outcome of patients given the drug with those who received standard care of antibiotics, fluids and oxygen.
Geraldine says: ‘I didn’t know much about the drug, but I wanted to give myself the best chance to fight Covid-19 and survive.’
She started to feel improvements two days later and was able to come off oxygen.
She says: ‘It really did turn around quite quickly. I went home only three days after I was given the drug. I can’t say for sure why I suddenly got better — but I believe it was down to that.’
Corona explainer: A guide to why the virus causes certain symptoms
This week: Loss of taste and smell
Studies suggest at least one in ten Covid-19 sufferers experiences a total loss of smell and taste — often days before any other symptoms, such as cough or fever, develop. The effects can last months.
Other viruses, like colds or flu, can also affect the ability to smell but usually by causing inflammation and congestion in the nasal passages. Covid-19 acts differently and seems to home in on the olfactory bulb, a bundle of nerves at the roof of the nose that transmits smell signals to the brain.
Animal studies suggest there is a high concentration of cells in the olfactory bulb that carry the ACE2 receptors which Covid-19 latches on to.
The virus attaches to these receptors, penetrates the cell and uses it to grow more virus particles.
Taste suffers because about 80 per cent of it is due to smell. Taste buds, mostly located on the tongue, are not affected.
Dr Sanjay Bhagani, a consultant physician in infectious diseases at the Royal Free Hospital, who has previously treated patients with ebola and some of the first Covid-19 patients, was amazed at how well Geraldine responded to the experimental treatment.
He says: ‘It was a really pleasant surprise, I wasn’t expecting it. From the way she presented including her X-rays, CT scans and blood tests, I thought it would take days before she’d improve, but she did have youth and fitness on her side.
‘Anecdotally, we have found that patients who get the drug in the first few days in hospital do very well but those patients who are sicker and need ventilators in intensive care don’t do as well.
‘With Covid-19, most patients get better in about seven days, but a small number don’t and if we can catch that group at this stage before they need intensive care, the drug can be very helpful.’
Dr Bhagani describes the last few weeks as the hardest in his career. He adds: ‘There were times on ward rounds where I’d come across so many sick people and just feel there was nothing else I could do for them, which as a doctor is the worst feeling.’
However, he says doctors have learnt much in the past few weeks. He adds: ‘Although the major manifestation of Covid-19 is in the lungs, it also affects the kidneys, heart and blood-clotting system, making clots more likely, so if we are going to tackle it we need to stop replication of the virus and turn off the inflammation caused by the immune system.’
Having been off work for two weeks, Geraldine is back part-time. She still suffers from fatigue and gets out of breath quickly.
‘It will probably take months to fully recover from this,’ she says. ‘Don’t underestimate Covid-19 or overestimate how well your body will fight it off.’
Hospital Special: Fighting Covid-19 is on BBC2 tonight at 9pm.