Covid: Combat of a vicious infective disease
Published on 15 October 2021
Having spent 128 days in hospital Honorary Professor of Orthodontics at the University of Dundee, Grant McIntyre, has the label of being Scotland's sickest Covid-19 survivor.
Grant tells us more about his journey, his inspirational story in fighting Covid-19 and the launch of his new book, ‘Dying to Live: The Remarkable True Story of Scotland’s Sickest Survivor of COVID-19’.
“It seems strange to think that we have now been living with COVID for over a year and a half. The story started with reports of a new virus that crippled Wuhan, a prosperous city in China. As part of the Dental Executive Group in Tayside, I had been involved in the early plans for a potential pandemic. As the virus moved west, we all became increasingly concerned about the potential for it to affect anyone and during the last week of March 2020 it became apparent to me and my close family that I too had been infected. This was just the start of what was to become the most difficult period of my life”, said Grant
“By the time I had been admitted to Ninewells Hospital for the third occasion, I knew that I was seriously unwell. I just could not breathe properly and even an oxygen mask was not providing enough help. That night while lying in the hospital bed, I had an out of body experience. I knew my life was ebbing away and death was coming closer. I tried desperately to breathe throughout the night and by the morning ward round I asked the doctors if I could be put onto a CPAP ventilator. I was transferred to the High Dependency Unit and put onto a conventional ventilator. My wife and family were relieved that there were initially signs of improvement however their hopes were dashed when I went into critical illness resulting from a cytokine storm, a form of immune-mediated overreaction.”
With the unknown of Covid-19 it was a very uncertain time for Grant and his family but he went on to surprise everyone with his battle to beat this deadly disease.
“As a new disease, the doctors were unsure of the most appropriate treatment and tried everything they could but as the days rolled on, I went into multiorgan failure. A case conference was held with other critical care centres in the UK and beyond. It was decided that the only option left available was a treatment called ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), a form of life support. I was taken to the operating theatre and lines were inserted into my femoral veins and right jugular vein. I was placed onto the ECMO life support machine and rapidly transferred to Aberdeen Royal infirmary which by then had become the Scottish Centre for ECMO. The irony was, by this point I was COVID negative. However, my body did not respond despite every effort from the medical and nursing teams. My family were counselled that, as my body had suffered critical illness with multiorgan failure and was not responding to ECMO treatment, survival was now very unlikely.”
“It was put to my family that the last role of the device would involve a large dose of steroids which was showing promise in some experimental COVID studies of critically unwell patients. My family agreed without much debate and somehow to everyone's amazement after nearly 50 days in the ECMO unit, there were signs of life. I was later told that of the six patients who were referred for ECMO treatment during the first wave, only I and one other patient survived. Everyone was surprised that I had survived and I was given a tracheostomy and taken back to Ninewells Hospital to begin the long process of recovery. I had, by this point lost nearly 26 kg in weight and was still being kept alive by a ventilator, kidney dialysis and a variety of other medical input. I was gradually weaned off these and on day 86, I was finally able to stand for the first time.”
Grant was starting out on a long road to recovery whilst being in the public eye.
“The same day I was transferred from the intensive care unit to a respiratory ward and just over a week later, I took my first steps in over three months. I was still extremely weak but was overjoyed that not only had I relearned to eat and drink, speak, stand and now walk, but that I was now making big progress with the rehabilitation journey and that going home was in sight. On day 128, I was overjoyed to be released from hospital with an incredible send off from the 200+ staff who had cared for me. In preparation for discharge, the Scottish media had been following my story and with several TV interviews, radio and newspaper stories, I suddenly found myself in the spotlight as one of Scotland's sickest Covid-19 patients who had survived.
“Being home was tremendous. I was with family and friends that I had not seen for over four months. I was able to sleep in my own bed, watch my own TV, and take the next steps on a long journey back to health. Whilst my family and close friends were incredible at helping me and taking me out in my wheelchair as I was so weak, I knew the physiotherapy and occupational therapy would need to step up in order for me to regain independence. I needed help in the toilet, to have a shower and for tasks in the kitchen. It was now the autumn and as the days were shortening, I was hungry not only to eat more and regain the weight that I had lost, but to rebuild the muscle that had faded away by slowly and gradually increasing my physical activity. However there was a problem, I was suffering from a post-viral arthritis which had affected almost every joint in my body which were swollen and painful. Drugs did not help.”
It was a long and painful road to rehabilitation for Grant but he was determined to push himself with his faithful Labrador by his side.
“I was also suffering from peripheral neuropathy with very similar symptoms to burning mouth syndrome affecting my arms and legs. Furthermore my lungs were also weak with considerable damage from Covid. Respiratory tests showed that my lungs were only operating at 50%. I decided that I did not want to live the rest of my life with symptoms similar to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The rehabilitation team and my family wanted to protect me from doing too much, but it was clear to me that the only path to some form of recovery and independence was through increasing my levels of exercise and with the help of the rehabilitation team, this stepped up on a gradual basis. Everyone wanted the best for me but I was also keen to start thinking about returning to work, particularly to the job I love, in orthodontics. My main rehab companion was our faithful Labrador, Sherlock. He walked daily with me for increasing distances until I could eventually walk around a mile each day. I bought an e-bike which has been a massive help to allow me to get up hills without collapsing through lack of oxygen.”
“More than one year on, I know my lungs have been permanently damaged and whilst on exercise, my O2 saturation drops to 70%, I now know that maintaining moderate exercise will keep my heart and lungs in as good a condition as possible for the rest of my life. I even climbed a Munro on the anniversary of falling sick.
Grant’s colleagues were very supportive and helped to get him back to the profession he loves.
“My dental and orthodontic colleagues wanted to help me re-engage with dentistry and orthodontics. The Orthodontic Department sent me some fixed appliance models with wires and gadgets to help me with my manual dexterity. This was complemented by Dr Clem Seeballuck’s ingenious development for home-based clinical skills whereby I could relearn some of the routine skills we will take for granted in dentistry such as using a dental mirror and holding a handpiece. I cannot begin to thank everyone in dentistry and orthodontics locally and globally for the level of support that they have shown to me and my family over the last year as I know that so many people prayed for my survival and then did everything they could to help me on the journey to recovery and rehabilitation.”
“I am proud to be a Dundee alumnus through my PhD and having worked in the Dental Hospital and School for over 20 years, the University and NHS staff and students alike helped me and my family from the darkest hour through to recovery. Returning to work was a key step in the journey and I am now back within the dental family where I belong and will remain thankful to everyone for their help. I know that this journey has helped me learn many things and being a Dundee alumnus, I know that learning is continual. Although I feel a sense of privilege to have survived this journey unlike so many other families, I also know that I discovered many things along the way, the most important being that care is more important than treatment. Would I want to make this journey again? The answer is obvious, but I have taken so much from the journey and know that my NHS heroes not only saved my life but also helped me rebuild my life.”
You can read more about Grant’s story by purchasing his book, Dying to Live: The Remarkable True Story of Scotland’s Sickest Survivor of COVID-19.
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