It started last Tuesday. Chills, low-grade temperature, scratchy throat, dry cough. It’s probably just a cold… but no runny nose. Unusual.
Wednesday night brought shortness of breath, chest pressure, plus the inability to end a sentence without gasping. It couldn’t be it, could it? Being a mum-of-two, working from home, with a wildly mundane routine consisting of school pick-ups and trips to the supermarket, where could I have possibly picked it up from?!
Concerned about passing anything on, I rang the HSE Thursday morning. Despite the symptoms fitting the criteria, I hadn’t been to an “affected region” or “in contact with a confirmed case”, and therefore told to ring the doctor. However, by that time, Leo Varadkar had made his dawn address outside the White House, and getting through to my GP, or indeed the HSE, was understandably nigh impossible.
The breathing difficulties were such that, when I did manage to get through to the GP, I was told to ring 999. Obviously, there was reluctance. 999 is for emergencies, ‘life and death’ situations. Then the dutiful GP pointed out that breathing difficulties would probably fall under that remit. I rang, sheepishly apologising to the operator, amidst a flurry of wheezing. When the ambulance service arrived, they asked me to put on a mask. Then the banter commenced.
“So, were you hoping to get two weeks in hospital away from the kids?” “Have you been watching the news too much, bit stressed?” And, a personal favourite; “Ah, you’re just getting a cold. Go the chemist tomorrow and get some Exputex.”
Listen, I’m all for bants to alleviate a weird situation, but I felt bad enough taking up their time when there were actual emergencies to be dealt with. I was, however, just following doctor’s orders.
After checking the vitals, they listened to my chest. “Have you any pain?” I responded; “Yes, on my right.” They confirmed there was a “crackle” in my lung and added “We can bring you to hospital if you want, but I don’t think it’s necessary.”
Who wants to go to hospital? I said if they didn’t think it necessary, I’d happily stay put. They suggested a “G&T in the garden away from the kids” before saying “If you get any worse, call us again”.
I’m not here to criticize frontline services, far from it – each and every one of them are heroes – rather, neither party should’ve been in that position. Thankfully, the system has since changed, freeing up emergency services. The HSE are now collaborating with GPs across the country who – after a phone consultation with a patient (assuming you can get through) – will send an e-referral for a test swab.
After a particularly arduous weekend, feeling like there was a small elephant sitting on my chest, I got onto my GP again. Finally, after numerous attempts, a test was organised. Monday afternoon, at 4:15pm, I received a call asking if I was in a position to be in Tallaght Stadium by 5pm. I was then given a reference number. Unable to drive myself due to dizziness, the kids were herded into the backseat, snacks were dispensed, and the husband careened up the M50.
Turning into the carpark of Tallaght Stadium was surreal. It was vacant, apart from a few cars lined up in front of an ambulance, and four people in protective hazmats. Driving towards the ambulance, we were directed into a car space and I showed them my reference number through the windshield. Myself and my husband were handed face masks, before receiving two more for the kids.
This was the moment that broke me. There was the three-year-old and the seven-year-old, sitting in their carseats, asking why they needed to put “these things on”, while grappling with the strings. I would’ve done anything to not have put them through that, but what was the alternative? There was no time to arrange childcare, not that we would’ve put someone in that position.
Details taken, I was then asked to get out of the car. Following one of the hazmats into the football grounds, I was led into what appeared to be a changing room, filled with approximately six people – all suitably suited. I was asked to take a seat, whereupon my vitals were taken.
Then the swab appeared. The official apologised for what was coming but, to be honest, it was fine. After swabbing the throat, it was inserted into my nostril. The same necessary questions, regarding age and pre-existing conditions, were asked. Lastly, I was handed a plastic ziplock bag labelled “PERSONAL PPE PACK”, containing extra face masks, a six page handout regarding what to do between now and receiving the test results (“between 24 and 36 hours”), and a black bin bag (double bagging of refuse is advised). Additionally, I was told to stay in a room by myself, with a mask on, and not to hug my family or touch their faces – near to impossible with two young kids in a tiny mid-terrace.
However, that’s what I’ve done, as tricky as it is. During this unprecedented and, frankly, beyond bizarre time, we must do what’s asked of us.
Originally published in The Irish Independent