UK survivors count losses and lessons of ‘horrific year’
As his oxygen levels plunged dangerously low, Darren Buttrick had just 15 minutes to call his family before he was sedated and put on a ventilator.
“Those 15 minutes were the worst of my life, just ringing my wife, hearing her cry,” the 49-year-old told AFP at his home in Wolverhampton in central England, looking back on the year since he contracted Covid-19 in March 2020.
The government confirmed the first death from Covid-19 on March 5. Since then, the toll has climbed to more than 125,000 — the highest in Europe.
Some who fell ill early in the pandemic have made a complete physical recovery, but the psychological impact is profound.
“It’s still very raw, it’s still very emotional,” says Buttrick, looking tearful as he remembers lying in hospital surrounded by other patients hooked up to bleeping machines, some of whom did not survive.
He recalls thinking: “Once I’m put to sleep, I may never wake up.”
“Those images never leave you,” he says, adding that the experience has changed his outlook on life.
He has become less of a workaholic in his job as sales director at a mobile phone operator, focusing more on time with his wife and three daughters.
He has also become Britain’s most prolific plasma donor, giving blood 24 times in 10 months — the most allowed — to help other sufferers in a trial.
For his wife, Angela, another blow came when her father fell ill at the end of 2020, which she blames on relaxation of lockdown rules before Christmas.
He died in February.
Stroking her small dog, she says she is “absolutely devastated”.
“It’s been a horrific year.”
– ‘I was drowning’ -Another family hit severely by the virus, the Patels, live around 45 miles (72 kilometres) east of Wolverhampton in Oadby, on the outskirts of Leicester.
Three generations live together in their large house and all six family members fell ill in March 2020.
Sanjiv, a 54-year-old financial advisor and life coach, recalls seeing his frail 80-year-old father, Anand, being taken to an ambulance by medics in top-to-toe protective clothing.
“I knew deep down that it was probably the last time I’d see him,” he says.
The next day, Sanjiv himself deteriorated and his 25-year-old son, Akash, had to call an ambulance for him as well.
“My dad’s lying on his front and literally gasping for breath,” recalls Akash, who works for a consulting firm.
While Sanjiv was in hospital, doctors told him that his father would not survive.
He had to break the news in a video call to his family, who were unable to visit.
His father’s portrait now stands in their living room.
His brother, a doctor in Australia, also helped with breathing tips to maximise oxygen intake.
– ‘We’re in it together’ – After a week, Sanjiv was well enough to leave hospital but was so weak he had to use a home stairlift.
He shows a video from a few days later, where he looks exhausted and swollen with excess fluid.
“I look a mess,” he says.
Recovery was slow, he adds, with his heart still racing while doing simple tasks months later.
What he drew from his experience was an even stronger sense of the value of family and community, he says.
“Do what you can for the people that you love, while you can.”
Leicester has a higher-than-average number of virus cases, which some link to multi-generational households and work in garment factories.
More than half of Britain’s adult population has now been vaccinated, bringing hope of release from lockdown.
But Leicester, one of Britain’s most ethnically diverse cities, has seen a slower take-up of jabs.
“We’re this close,” Sanjiv says. “So let’s just comply, we’re in it together, and then we can celebrate together quicker.”