The day the country went into lockdown, Alan Dennison was sitting in a temporary emergency tent outside a hospital with suspected coronavirus as contractors hurried to build the canvas around him.
There was just one bed and the sides were still open to the elements.
There seemed to be uncertainty about what to do with Alan, a fit and healthy 59-year-old man from Milford Haven who had just returned from Spain with a dry cough.
Alan himself had no clue what was going on either, but at that point, wheezing for breath and in agony, he felt with some certainty that he wanted to die just to ease the suffering.
Alan said he was the first patient admitted to the intensive care unit at Withybush Hospital with Covid and he very nearly did die. He pulled through but he has not forgotten the fear he felt in the moments before he was put into an induced coma and on to a ventilator.
It’s a fear that has resurfaced in the last few weeks as he has watched in horror the huge influx of visitors into his beloved county. Freed from the shackles of the lockdown restrictions, people have flocked to the Pembrokeshire coast in their thousands. Determined to reclaim some of their summer holiday, it could be argued that some have forgotten about Covid full stop.
Alan is a bit of a rarity in Pembrokeshire – the rural county did not see the scale of despair wreaked by coronavirus that was seen in other parts of Wales and it’s not uncommon for people not to know anyone who’s caught the virus.
“We all think: ‘It will never happen to me’ – I did, it did, and it could happen to you,” says Alan, a retired oil refinery worker. “It really is like Russian roulette. I had no underlying medical issues which were often used to describe deaths from Covid in the initial stages and this gave me this comfortable sense of immunity. I thought if I was going to get it, then let’s have it and move on. How wrong I was and how wrong we all are, this virus has no common entity other than its mission to destroy with maximum impact as it can.”
He is convinced there will be a second wave come the winter, a view that is compounded by observing just how packed tourist honeypots like Narberth High Street or Milford Marina have become now the summer holidays have arrived.
“I think as a result of tourism we will have a second wave, no question,” he says confidently. “The majority of people in Pembrokeshire have followed the rules to the letter. What I would have liked to have seen is no tourists coming this summer. Write off the season – the season is ruined anyway – this is our county and we want to go to the beaches and enjoy it. But I can’t.”
Neither Alan or his wife Mandy have been into a shop since March and they no longer walk their two dogs along Milford’s marina for fear of a lack of social distancing. They recently popped into Narberth but said they felt “uncomfortable” with the lack of distance between people.
“One of my biggest fears is whether I will catch it again,” added Alan. “Nobody can tell me categorically that I can’t. All they can say is the antibodies last a couple of months.”
Mandy is sat next to Alan at their kitchen table, quietly sewing hundreds of face coverings to be sent to the maternity unit in Withybush. She was a nurse at the Haverfordwest hospital until she retired several years ago. She said: “Until they find a vaccine, I don’t think anyone can say they’re clear, and that could be months away, maybe even a year.”
This is a family who have suffered the worst of everything that coronavirus could have thrown at them – after Alan caught the virus Mandy had a mild form of the virus herself, Mandy’s elderly mother died mid-lockdown with no option for a funeral and their daughter’s wedding, planned for April, was cancelled. Even Alan’s surprise 60th birthday earlier this month was more low key than originally planned.
The couple remember watching the news in February about the effects of coronavirus in countries like Italy and Spain but at that point it was an “unknown entity”.
“It was just on the telly, it wasn’t a thing here,” said Mandy. That’s why Alan decided to go ahead with his trip to Spain – a stag do for his soon-to-be son-in-law. Little did they know they were celebrating on what would be the last days of freedom in the country which sealed its borders on March 16.
Alan said: “It was quite eerie as Spain was headed into lockdown, almost all of the shops were closed although some bars stayed open along with a few restaurants. Our excursion and tour of the football stadium, and the museum were cancelled as the lockdown took effect and on the last night there we stayed in the hotel, unable even to play pool amongst ourselves as the staff didn’t want us to touch the cue.
“Bilbao airport was eerie, some passengers wearing masks, others not, ourselves included. There were no shops, duty free or restaurants open save for one small shop which sold drinks and sweets. We were one of the last airlines out before total lockdown and it suddenly dawned on us how serious Spain were taking this. We flew back into Bristol into a haze of spray from the EasyJet staff, waved through by minimum staffed customs officials and made our respective ways home.”
No one else in Alan’s group ever had coronavirus symptoms and even now Alan is adamant that he didn’t catch the virus in Spain. He thinks he might have been asymptomatic during the stag do and had picked it up during a business trip to London at the end of February. But he can’t be sure.
By the time he got home to Milford Haven, Alan was coughing – ” a dry persistent barking cough” – and he joked to his wife that he might have “the bug”.
The next day Alan woke up feeling “awful”. He said: “My temperature was sky high- 40 degrees plus. I shivered violently with the cold whilst sweating profusely with the heat, the cough became constant, my body ached permanently, the fatigue of being unable to sleep was beginning to overpower me, towards the end of the week I just wanted to die.”
At night came the hallucinations.
Alan said: “T he most horrid dream was when I witnessed multiple bodies floating in a hotel pool abroad. My wife jumped off a balcony to rescue a dead baby from the pool, fully dressed for dinner, floating down and re-emerging from the pool clueless of the others floating in there and now wearing a bathing costume.”
It was five days before he called 111, seven days before he saw a GP and then just a matter of hours before he was sent to A&E.
By then, Alan’s breathing had become a lot more difficult. “It was a sort-of panting like a dog when it’s too hot,” he said. “It’s a horrid feeling not being able to get enough breath into your body to relax but I felt contented I was in ‘the right place’ and my suffering would soon be fixed.”
Four days passed in a haze as Alan stayed in the Acute Clinical Decision Unit (ACDU) gasping for breath, his lungs feeling so “clogged” he could barely breathe. He was “delighted” when his consultant told him they were going to put him to sleep and onto a ventilator but then came a bolt out of the blue when he was asked if he wanted to be resuscitated. At that moment, Alan suddenly realised just how serious the virus was.
“I was brought to earth with an almighty bump,” he recalled. “The consultant casually mentioned that they had no idea which way this ‘thing’ was going to go, it could go either way and he needed to know whether I wanted them to bring me back from the dead should the need arise. From wishing to die in the previous moments my thoughts immediately turned to survival.
“Although totally fatigued, adrenaline kicked in and I replied they could do whatever it needed to bring me back.”
But not before he had phoned his wife and daughter, Katy, who hadn’t seen him since he’d been admitted. He said: ” I needed to ring my wife and daughter and say my goodbyes. After what seemed a tsunami of tears had flowed, we all said our goodbyes as I couldn’t be sure the outcome would be positive, the last words ringing in my ears from my wife urging me: ‘Fight it, fight it with everything you’ve got’. I switched off the phone, the doctors did their magic and as I fell asleep, I felt my problems disappearing slowly.”
Alan was in a coma for eight days. A close friend who worked at the hospital popped up to the entrance door of the ward every day and shouted for him to “fight, fight, fight”. Meanwhile, Mandy was back at home, herself fighting a mild form of the virus, all the while worrying about her 88-year-old mother who lived with them but who by now had been moved to Katy’s house a couple of streets away in order to keep her safe and isolated.
Alan can remember intensely the dreams he had while “blissfully asleep”. Many Covid patients have described dreams about being chased or experimented on while in intensive care, including Scott Howell, who survived weeks on end in a coma.
What Alan can’t remember is that his organs were beginning to shut down as he lay in his hospital bed. He was in early stages of kidney failure. At 10.30am on day six, Mandy was told to prepare for the worst. “He was very poorly, his organs were shutting down and it wasn’t looking good,” she said.
“Because I had worked there, I could visualise where he was and the girls who were looking after him. I knew they were doing everything they could.”
Suddenly, Alan picked up and as if by magic, his body started to fight the virus. Two days later, the doctors woke him up. The first patient in intensive care, Alan was also the first patient to recover from Covid and he was sent home after spending more than two weeks in hospital.
It’s taken three months to regain his strength but even now, in high-summer, the lingering effects of coronavirus catch up with him.
“I have made good progress, walking limited distances daily although my lungs have scarred due to the virus and the ventilator so I get quite breathless doing small jobs or walking up slight hills,” Alan said after returning from a round of golf.
“I have thankfully managed to get out on the golf course, albeit using my buggy for now,” he adds. “My sense of smell has finally almost returned to normal and likewise my taste too.”
Mandy also has moments where her breath catches in her throat, unexpected and without warning. As more people recover from the virus, doctors are learning about the range of post-Covid symptoms.
But for Alan, he hopes people learn just one thing. “People are becoming complacent about this virus, it’s just a number now, apart from the poor souls left behind,” he said. “You’ve got to make it personal. Read my story and ask yourself would you like your mum or dad to go through that?
“I don’t know where I caught it, nobody knows, it could be lingering anywhere, people don’t think it’s there, but it’s everywhere.”
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