Patricia Killeen, who is from Phibsborough in Dublin, left Ireland in 1992 to travel the world. She now lives in Saint Ouen, on the outskirts of Paris. She hosts Turning Points show for World Radio Paris and, like many expats in Paris, is working on “le novel”
I was not looking forward to celebrating my milestone February 17th birthday in the middle of Covid-19 restrictions. My French husband had been poorly. His GP diagnosed rhinopharyngitis. As a precaution he went for a PCR test. It was negative, and he was finally feeling better. Heeding President Macron’s “rule of six indoors”, we celebrated with our lovely daughters, who are 25 and 21, and two dear Irish girlfriends over a curfew-respecting lunch. I had a lot to toast: family, friends, happiness and health.
Our home was akin to a deluxe, modern version of the pest house. We felt 'unclean' and ashamed of our illness
A few days later my husband began coughing again. We both went for PCR tests on February 24th. He tested positive with the Alpha variant. I was negative. That evening the department where we live, on the edge of Paris, lit up red on our TV screens. The then-new variant had started a wave that would rip through the Seine-Saint-Denis department of the city. I tested positive the following day. Our two birthday guests had escaped unscathed. Our daughters both tested negative, although my 25-year-old would start that ominous, rasping cough some days later.
Our home was akin to a deluxe, modern version of the pest house. We felt “unclean” and ashamed of our illness. We socially distanced from our daughters and figured out how to order absolutely everything in.
By February 28th my husband’s breathing was laboured and his cognition impaired. His brain-to-body signals were on the blink. A pain in the thorax had me bent over like An Sean Bean Bhocht. I called #15, the French emergency number. In the ambulance, we were shadows of our February 17th selves.
At the renowned Bichat Hospital we were rapidly surrounded. Medics checked our oxygen levels and a young tattooed doctor examined us. We then underwent and passed echocardiogram tests. I explained that my husband’s cognition seemed impaired, but he strangely perked up and received 10 out of 10 in a cognitive drilling.
With a prescription for an oximeter and paracetamol, we were escorted home by ambulance. Our daughters were delighted to hear us coming back. They couldn’t hug us; it was all so bizarre. Later that night my husband became completely disorientated and couldn’t get out of bed. I propped him up, as it seemed a horizontal position worsened his state. After a few hours of drowsing, in the semi-sitting sleep position favoured by Louis XIV, he was able to get out of bed. I phoned my own GP. “Take a taxi with a Plexiglas barrier, double up your masks, wear plastic gloves and come in the back entrance,” she said.
“I don’t want to go back to hospital,” my husband entreated. Our GP prescribed steroids and antibiotics, warning if my husband’s oxygen levels dropped further to immediately call #15.
With Covid passports in hand, we are finally heading home. I need an injection of friendly Irish faces and voices, and long to roam Dublin's city centre
That evening of March 2nd, the oximeter reported bad vibes. Ignoring my husband’s ebbing resistance, we called #15. Within 10 minutes an ambulance had arrived. He was put on an oxygen tank and whisked away on a stretcher.
I accompanied him but was obliged to leave once he was checked in. I wouldn't see him for a week. On oxygen and a cocktail of steroids and antibiotics, he remained in a Covid fog for most of his Bichat Hospital stay. His lungs were 25 per cent infected. They thought the virus had also touched his kidneys, and plans were being hatched to move him to intensive care. I imagined those grey Covid blobs with red tufted spikes, hovering over his kidneys. Then like some violent animal, in front of an easy prey, who for no explicable reason changes course, those menacing "blobs" just backed off.
When I visited on March 8th I hardly recognised the gaunt, bearded, 10kg-lighter man.
With Covid-scarred lungs, recovery for him would be slow. He was discharged on March 11th for “home hospitalisation”. He was on a noisy oxygen machine 24 hours of every day for five weeks, with a nurse visiting daily. We realised then how lucky we were to have the French healthcare system.
I hadn’t intended writing about this episode of our lives. But we had a spine-chilling flashback when my husband had his Covid vaccine last week. About 30 hours later, behind the wheel on the Paris ring road, the strange Covid disorientation made a comeback, blanketing him for about 12 hours.
We were told that people’s immune system kicking in can cause loss of smell, taste or both in Covid patients. In others, brain inflammation (encephalitis) can affect brain function. We are definitely pro-vax but would have preferred advance warning that it could trigger a Covid-induced brain malfunction (encephalopathy) relapse, as it did in his case.
With Covid passports in hand, we are finally heading home. I need an injection of friendly Irish faces and voices, and long to roam Dublin’s city centre and visit the Epic museum on Spencer Dock. For this slightly bent but not broken emigrant, it is definitely time to take the rocky road to Dublin. If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email email@example.com with a little information about you and what you do