On Sunday March 22, Mother’s Day, Adam Fresco’s two daughters, aged 21 and 23, took it in turns to read out their cards to their mum, his wife, Stacey.
All very normal. Except that Stacey was on a life-support machine, unconscious, in an intensive care unit at Whipps Cross Hospital. She had Covid-19, bacterial pneumonia and her kidneys and heart were not working properly.
A doctor had called and asked how quickly Adam could get to the hospital. When he arrived, he was told that there was very little they could do for her and they should say goodbye.
Adam said “I called the kids and asked them to come to the hospital, saying we were allowed to visit Mum. When they arrived, I told them the truth: that we were going in to say goodbye and they should think about everything they wanted to say as it would probably be the last time they saw her alive.
We put on full PPE — three pairs of gloves each, an apron with the sleeves tucked into the gloves, facemask, glasses and hair net — and walked into the intensive care unit.
“Having to tell your children that their mum is unlikely to survive the next couple of hours is horrific. To have to watch as they sob their goodbyes is worse. Stacey looked at peace, but it was awful not being able to touch or kiss her. I am convinced she heard our pleas for her to fight, our goodbyes, us telling her how much we loved her. A tear escaped from her right eye, which I wiped away with a tissue.
“After I don’t know how long, we walked away, all gasping for breath, and had to go through a torturous process of carefully taking off the smothering PPE, touching as little as possible, when all we wanted to do was yank it off and be able to breathe.
Back in the waiting room the doctor, Dave, came back in and said there was one last thing he could try, something called “proning”, whereby the patient is placed on their stomach for about 12 hours.
He explained that the thinking behind proning was that it would help move fluid accumulated in her lungs, increase oxygen flow and promoted the use of a different part of the lungs.
At the same time, the doctor warned there was a high probability that turning Stacey would lead to a fatal heart attack.
“But she is going to die anyway right?” Adam asked. “Undoubtedly” was the answer. Even if it worked, it may not be enough.
Adam continued: “The three of us agreed there was nothing to lose. The doctor told us to stay for an hour and confirmed that if it was to go horribly wrong it would do so very quickly. After an hour Stacey was still fighting and he told us to go home. If there was bad news, he said, they would call.
“The phone didn’t ring that night. Nor the next when they turned her again for 15 hours.
“On Tuesday night the house phone rang — it could only be the hospital. I picked it up in a panic, my heart pumping so hard I struggled to hear what was being said. “Is that Adam, Stacey’s husband?” “Yes.” I was dreading the next sentence starting with “I’m sorry but . . .”
Instead, the doctor on the line said: “Can I just say what a remarkable woman your wife is?”
She explained that we were not out of the woods, but they were optimistic. Stacey was fighting hard.
Her deterioration had been so rapid. The family had called an ambulance the previous Friday afternoon, March 20, after Stacey’s breathing became laboured. That night she was transferred to the Covid ward. On Saturday, via Facetime, Adam could see she was struggling to breathe, almost hyperventilating. He called the ward and they tried to get her to breathe through her nose and the oxygen tube in her nostrils.
About 3am on Sunday Stacey was transferred to ICU. Adam was told her blood had filled with acid and glucose. She had type 2 diabetes previous to this but this symptom was more common with type 1. Another nurse said later this was happening with many Covid patients, even those without diabetes.
Now, just two days after they had said their goodbyes, a doctor was spending ten valuable minutes explaining to Adam everything that had happened, including that Stacey was also now on dialysis. He put the phone down with the firm impression that everyone treating Stacey was astounded she had survived.
He rang twice a day for updates. One nurse kindly gave Adam her personal mobile number so he could send a picture of the girls. She printed the photo and taped it by Stacey’s bed. Other ICU staff regularly passed on his messages: “Your family love you. They want you to keep fighting. Don’t give up.”
Adam said that “On Thursday the intensive care unit rang. “Would you like to speak to your wife?” She was only semi-conscious and they were trying to see how aware she was. The nurse said she opened her eyes when she heard my voice, and when I begged her to keep fighting, she said “OK”. This was amazing.”
The next morning “Hosp ICU” flashed up on his mobile. It was Stacey herself.
She was awake. Weak, exhausted, confused, but awake.
After a few more days she was transferred to the high dependency unit then a respiratory ward. She was pleading with staff to get her up, help her get home. In the coming days the tubes were removed from her body, then the oxygen.
One doctor told her she was the hospital’s success story. Another said she hadn’t just beaten the odds, but smashed them out of the park. One told Adam that at one point Stacey had been the sickest person in the entire hospital.
Twenty days after being admitted, she came home. The road to recovery will be long but, as Stacey says: “I am alive.”
“How did she survive? If the incredible Dr Dave hadn’t heard about proning; if his colleague hadn’t realised the seriousness of Stacey’s breathing on the Sunday; if we hadn’t been allowed in to see her in ICU; if she didn’t have the sheer bloody mindedness to keep going; if the nurses didn’t keep telling her we needed her; if that lovely nurse hadn’t printed off that picture; if friends and family around the country and the world did not pray for her or send positive vibes; if Sabeer, Penny, Chloe, Abbie among many, many others, hadn’t looked after my wife so well, feeding her jelly when she was too weak to lift her arms — so many unanswerable ifs — would she have made it?”
It has been said this is a war. Except you cannot see this enemy, you cannot fight it with missiles from thousands of miles away, you have to face it head on.
What is not an if, but a fact, is the heroism of the thousands of NHS staff who go into work every day, risking their lives, and those of their families.
• To donate to Whipps Cross please visit: https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/barts-charity-NHS-appeal